As more locals in Pohnpei rely on local markets to buy their fish, the question of food safety becomes an ever more pressing issue.
A snapshot study sponsored by MarAlliance, a San Francisco-based organization aiming to support “positive change for threatened marine wildlife, their critical habitats and dependent human communities,” suggests that many fish being sold in open markets are sitting in dangerously warm temperatures, making them ripe places for illness-inducing pathogens like E. coli and Vibrio to grow.
Dr. Kevin Rhodes, the fish biologist who ran the study admitted that the small sample — five fish from five markets — is not enough to condemn local fish markets, but contended that the results highlight a need for regular testing and enforcement.
Since it was founded in 1992, the Pohnpei Environmental Protection Agency’s mission has worked on developing protocols to test and regulate food safety at various locations including stores, restaurants, take- outs and fish markets.
“Nobody’s been doing fish testing on the island, for at least the last 20 years to my knowledge, which is about as long as I’ve been here,” Rhodes said. “There’s obviously a lack of sanitation and health standards at the fish markets and that was part of the reason for me to do (the study).”
Donna Scheuring, a consultant with the Pohnpei EPA, confirmed that testing market fish for bacteria and disease is not a priority, but that monthly facility testing is—unless of course [EPA personnel] are too busy. The small EPA office has three inspectors who cover all food-related businesses, including school cafeterias and prisons.
“Inspecting fish markets, we try to do them at least once a month, but sometimes if other things happen, inspectors are called for something else, it doesn’t always happen,” Scheuring admitted. “We’re pretty familiar with the fish markets and all of the food establishments around here, so we kind of know which ones we have to keep more of an eye on and which ones we can rely on doing the right thing and not have to supervise them as much.”
Between the sea and the sale, fish need to be kept on ice to maintain internal temperatures of 41 degrees Fahrenheit and prevent bacterial growth.
Scheuring’s best guess is that Pohnpei has about 20 markets, and she added that enforcing regulations is difficult because, “Fishermen are all over the place. … (and) a lot of the fishermen fish at night.”
Because many Pohnpeians work day jobs, Scheuring said most of them rely on fish from local markets. In addition to trusting the sellers not to poison their customers, Scheuring trusts the customer to know what to eat.
“Pohnpeians are experts at looking for good fish,” Scheuring said. “It’s kind of obvious, the eyes are clear and the gills are pink and the flesh is firm, that’s just kind of a standard protocol for how you go out to the fish market to see if the fish is fresh or not, so it’s not a big deal for Pohnpeians.”
While the National Oceanic Resource Management Authority oversees the entire FSM, each state has its own EPA with its own rules and regulations. Because it exports to Guam, Rhodes said Chuuk has one of the more rigorous protocols.
While the market represents the end of the line, Rhodes pointed out that a number of important issues concerning the fisheries will impact the future of Pohnpei and the FSM.
“What prompted me to do this study is … I’ve seen a lot of declines in markets,” he said. “Pohnpei State is trying to develop eco-tourism in the long term because the loss of Compact Funds in 2023, so I was hoping it would incentivize them to improve sanitation and health not only for the consumers but also for what tourists see when they come into the state.”