Someone has calculated that there are 1,752 fish species in Papua New Guinea waters with an additional 80 unverified. Most of these fish live around reefs and in coastal waters. PNG has one of the world’s biggest fishes, the whale shark, which grows to 13 metres and can weigh 14 tonnes. At the other extreme Dahl’s coralfish is only 2.8 cm long and is one of the smallest known animals with a backbone.
All along PNG’s 17,000 kilometre coastline there are people fishing in their own traditional way, using small canoes or dinghies, diving, collecting shells, spearing fish, using traps, nets, hooks and lines. They catch fish for consumption, for barter and for a little cash income at small markets. In some provinces, like Milne Bay, men fish everyday. Fish with coconut is a staple diet. Fish is used in a traditional exchange with the people who live in the Highlands for taro, yam and vegetables. Fish has a place in every feast. With the arrival of Europeans and the introduction of new fishing technology, people started to earn a cash income from various marine products. But the fishing industry was then still small-scale, restricted to communities of clan and family members. Now local fishermen are powering their boats with outboard motors. They fish at night. They have small generators to run freezers and sell the fish at markets and restaurants. One day, they hope, they may own a longliner or a prawn vessel.
Today, industrial fishing is conducted off the coasts of PNG by other nations under licence. Otherwise PNG is not yet involved. The other foreign groups interested in PNG’s fish are the tourists, divers, snorkellers and game fishermen.
The most famous destination is the Bensback Lodge near the Irian Jaya border where without boasting even a 20kg barramundi can commonly be caught. Then there are many towns around the coast where boats can be hired for deep-water fishing for sharks or marlin. Diving and snorkelling is tremendously attractive, the water is clear, there is an abundance of reef, soft and hard corals and hundreds of species of fish. One tour guide said that to go to PNG without looking underwater would be like going to Nepal and not looking at the mountains.