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2. Introduction

2.1 Background

Sea safety and related issues are crucially important in Pacific islands fisheries. In some of the countries the accident rate for fishers is among the highest in the world. Over the last four decades various UN agencies, regional organizations, donor agencies and others have made efforts to address the situation. On the regional level, in 1991 FAO implemented one of the largest sea safety initiatives in the region - a survey of sea safety issues in 16 countries. This was followed by efforts of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), especially in the area of sea safety awareness.

In early 2003 FAO undertook another survey of fisheries-related sea safety in the region. The objective of the work was to consolidate the experience gained by selected Pacific Island countries in safety at sea with the view of improving ongoing and future activities in the region. This report summarizes the finding of the survey.

Five major themes were covered in the survey. These topics and specific information to be collected on each topic are:

Fisheries management

Safety programmes

Data recording


Boatbuilding and vessel design

2.2 Survey and report considerations

Ideally, a study sea safety in the Pacific islands would entail visits to each country. Unfortunately, funding and time constraints dictated that, unlike the 1991 FAO survey, only five countries would be directly surveyed in the present study: Tuvalu, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, and Kiribati[1]. It was the intention that by surveying a selection of five countries from Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia, including both atoll and high island countries, many of the important sea safety issues and recent developments in the region would be covered.

Not all aspects of sea safety in the region were covered in the survey. The information collected was largely restricted to the five topics detailed in Section 2.1 above. As such, other important topics such as causes of accidents, search/rescue, and survival at sea were not addressed. The scope of vessels covered was restricted to locally-based fishing boats of up to about 20 metres in length.

The term "safety" requires clarification. As with the earlier FAO study (McCoy 1991), "safety" is associated with the ability of a vessel to return to port (or more usually the island or village) at the completion of a voyage or trip. Other aspects of safety in fishing such as accidents with gear or in fish handling, dealing with illness on board, collisions at sea, and SCUBA are not addressed in this report.

Two consultants were recruited for the survey. One of the consultants, Mike Savins, was responsible for collecting, analysing, and presenting the information related to Kiribati. The other consultant was responsible for the other four countries and writing up the material.

The survey commenced on 20 January 2003. Between that date and 23 February five countries were visited and 71 individuals were interviewed from government agencies, regional organizations, fishing companies, boatbuilding operations, and fishing vessels. These people and their institutional affiliations are given in the Appendix.

2.3 The Pacific Islands region

Recognizing that some of the audience for this report may have limited knowledge of the Pacific islands, information on the region and features important for sea safety is provided here.

In reference to the fisheries of the Pacific islands, there is often uncertainty over the geographical area in question. In roughly descending size, the western and central Pacific Ocean (WCPO), the US South Pacific Tuna Treaty area, Secretariat of the Pacific Community statistical area (Figure 1), FAO statistical area 71, SPC area, and the EEZs of Pacific Island FFA-member countries are used to describe the "region". Unless otherwise stated, the term "Pacific Islands region" referred to in this report is that of the 200-mile zones of Pacific Island countries. The term "Pacific Island countries" is used here to refer to the 14 independent Pacific Island nations.

The political entities of the Pacific islands are characterized by large exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and, in the main, very small land areas. The total area of the region's EEZs is estimated to be 30 569 000 km2, equivalent to about 28 percent of the world's EEZ area. The land area is 552 789 km2, of which 461 690 km2 (84 percent) is in Papua New Guinea.

In general, the islands increase in size from east to west. Most islands rise steeply from the deep ocean floor and have very little underwater shelf area. Coral reefs characteristically surround the islands, either close to the shore (fringing reef) or further offshore (barrier reef), in which case a coastal lagoon is enclosed. The area includes many atolls, which are the remnant barrier reefs of islands that have subsided. Some of the more recent islands in the area lack coral reefs.

Some distinctive features of the region that are important for sea safety include:

Map courtesy of SPC

Figure 1: Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) Statistical Area

Also worth mentioning is the close-knit nature of Pacific Island communities. Unlike some of the larger nations addressed by major sea safety programmes, most people in the governments and administrations of Pacific Island countries have friends/relatives working in the fishing industry, or may be part-time commercial fishers themselves. As an example, in one country the Secretary of Foreign Affairs was involved in a sea safety incident which involved drifting for several days. The close-knit nature of Pacific Island countries also has significant implications for enforcement of safety legislation.

Fisheries cooperation, fostered by the regional organizations, is another prominent feature of the Pacific islands. The region has two organizations with major involvement in fisheries matters and several others with peripheral involvement:

The table below gives information on vessel numbers in the region.

Estimates of fishing vessel numbers

Locally-based tuna vessels
(Gillett, 2003)

Motorized artisanal fishing vessels
(McCoy 1991)

Non-motorized artisanal fishing vessels
(McCoy 1991)

Other information on vessel numbers
(from Gillett 2002 or this report)

Cook Islands

10 L/L



1996 census indicated a total of 1 291 fishing boats, of which 26% were located on Rarotonga


96 L/L
1 P/L

1 600


See Section 8.1 of this report


34 L/L
8 P/S

2 000



2 L/L
1 P/S


5 000

See Section 9.1 of this report

Marshall Islands

54 L/L
5 P/S




1 L/L



A 1992 survey recorded 218 powered skiffs and 128 paddling canoes


100 skiffs



In June 2001 Niue had 62 registered boats and about 200 canoes


71 L/L
1 P/L



At least 25 percent of households own fishing boats


40 L/L 24 P/S

8 000

10 000


153 L/L



See Section 7.1 of this report

Solomon Islands

12 P/L
2 P/S
8 L/L

1 800

5 000


26 L/L



See Section 6.1 of this report


20 skiffs



See section 5.1 of this report


10 skiffs


2 000

Fisheries officials indicate that there are between five and ten full-time and five to ten part-time skiff trolling operations


14 P/L
40 P/S
495 L/L

16 890

24 530

P/L = Pole and line vessel; P/S = Purse seiner; L/L = Longliner

[1 ]As the information collected and thoughts on safety evolved while the survey proceeded, the countries appear in this report in the order which they were visited.
[2] The total does not include skiffs - the number of skiffs was only noted in countries where industrial tuna vessels are absent.

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