May 14, 2014 Pohnpei, FSM - Petrick Ringlen, Madolenihmw's chief elected official says that he considers the commercial sea cucumber operation in Madolenihmw to be a pilot project and that so far no money has been made.
Madolenihmw signed a memorandum of understanding with American business man Thomas Son to farm greenfish sea cucumbers for export. The program has been a subject of controversy and a large number of rumors.
First of all, Pohnpei law does not allow for exportation of marine resources unless they are farmed products.
Joseph Saimon of Pohnpei's Office of Fishing and Aquaculture said that two weeks ago representatives of his office went to Madolenihmw and performed an evaluation of greenfish sea cucumber populations and that they found no evidence of farming. A similar evaluation in 2013 showed a large population of the sea cucumbers. He also said that his office concluded that the sea cucumber population showed signs of being over harvested.
Ringlen says that he doesn't know how OFA performed its evaluation but that the operation is a farming and harvesting operation, and that it is sustainable. He said that the company has 68 employees including the nine employees who process the sea cucumbers by boiling and drying them. All of the employees spend three of their work days harvesting sea cucumbers and two planting them and that the number of sea cucumbers planted is much higher than the number they harvest. When harvesting, the employees have a daily limit of 300 sea cucumbers each during their five hour work day. When planting, each employee plants 1500 sea cucumbers on two days of the week.
Ringlen said that planting began in January and harvesting started in mid-April
Ringlen said that though they do lose some of the sea cucumbers they plant to fish who feed on their intestines, the losses are fairly small because fish do not feed on them after the sea cucumbers close up which he said takes only 45 minutes. Further, he claims that after planting, sea cucumbers grow to harvestable size in approximately six weeks.
He said that rumors that the company is trying to fill two 40 foot containers with boiled and dried sea cucumbers are untrue. He claims that after harvesting began in mid-April, the project has filled only one small corner of its one 20 foot container. Processed sea cucumbers end up only about three inches long. They look like pickles when dried.
Ringlen denies the rumor that the employees are receiving less than Pohnpei's $1.75 minimum wage for their work. He said that the planters and harvesters work five hours a day five days a week for which they receive $50 which is $2 per hour. He says that employment taxes are being paid.
Ringlen said that Son is operating as a sole proprietor based on his U.S. citizenship.
As to whether or not Son has a required foreign investment permit to operate a business in Pohnpei, Ringlen said he didn't know.
Pohnpei's Office of the Registrar said that US citizens do require a foreign investment permit to operate a business in Pohnpei. They can get a waiver if they have lived in Pohnpei for the five years immediately prior to the filing of an application for a waiver. They said that they had no record of an application for either a foreign investment permit or a waiver in Son's name.
The national government can also issue foreign investment permits but said that a sea cucumber operation would be under the State's jurisdiction.
Ringlen said that he told Son before they started the joint operation that he needed to also get a permit from the Office of Land and Natural Resources for farming sea cucumbers but didn't know whether or not that had ever been done.
The Office of Land and Natural Resources says that they do not remember any application for such a project ever having been filed.
Son is currently in China buying more containers of feed. He said that he brought two containers of feed when the project first began.
"There's a lot of dirty politics and misunderstandings in Pohnpei these days," Ringlen said about the rumors. "People think I'm making money (for myself) but it's not true." He said it's his job under the Madolenihmw Constitution to develop projects to help build the municipality's economy. He's calling it a pilot project and that so far no one has made any money other than the employees through their wages.
Ringlen reiterated that the company and Madolenihmw have a vested interested in running the project in a sustainable way and that is what they are doing.