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5. Sea safety in Tuvalu

5.1 General

The islands of Tuvalu are all low lying atolls. From north to south they are Nanumea, Nanumanga, Niutao, Nui, Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Funafuti (the main urban area and government administrative centre), Nukulaelae and Niulakita. Tuvalu's small land area of only 26 km2 is tiny when compared to its EEZ area, which covers 900 000 km2.

A recent FFA study indicated that ten to 20 vessels on Funafuti fish commercially and mainly for tuna. Another ten commercial boats fish frequently for tuna. Alternatively, the head of the Funafuti Fishermen's Association indicated that there are about ten boats which could be considered full-time commercial tuna boats. A survey by the Fisheries Department in 2000 showed 125 boats and 104 canoes on Funafuti. No privately-owned vessel on Funafuti is greater than seven metres and most are less than six metres.

There is little data on vessels in the outer islands. The 1991 census gave information on household ownership of motorized vessels which ranged from two percent on Nui to 53 percent on Nukulaelae. McCoy (1991) estimated that in the whole country there were 200 motorized small fishing and 500 non-motorized canoes.

A study by the Tuvalu Economic Research and Policy Division (ERPD, 2000) gave the major causes of loss of life on fishing vessels as bad weather, loss of power, and alcohol. The study also commented that "search and rescue (SAR) operations are inefficient and ineffective in the country".

5.2 Fisheries management and sea safety

Government interventions in the fisheries sector are largely limited to action for obtaining government revenue from the foreign offshore fisheries and to small-scale inshore fisheries development. According to the Director of Fisheries, there are no conventional fisheries management measures in place at the moment[4]. The Tuvalu section of the FFA Regional Compendium of Fisheries Legislation Western Pacific Edition, 1999 states: "Apart from conditions relating to the licensing of foreign fishing vessels, there is very little regulation of fisheries in Tuvalu. In earlier times there were well developed systems of traditional resource management but many of these appear to have broken down."

Fisheries management measures have therefore not had much effect on the sea safety situation in Tuvalu. The possible exceptions to this are:

Sea safety has only been included in fisheries management measures in a limited manner. Although no relevant management measures are in place at present, the government has recently focused considerable effort on formulating the Tuvalu National Tuna Development and Management Plan. Two provisions in the Plan have an effect on safety:

According to Fisheries Department officials, the reason that sea safety has not been included in fisheries management measures is because of priorities of the department, lack of capacity, and the fact that the present fisheries legislation does not allow the regulation of the size of vessel commonly used for offshore fishing.

It appears that several measures could be taken to encourage the concept of including sea safety in fisheries management. A fundamental prerequisite is that the Fisheries Act be modified so that it encompasses the types of vessels commonly used for offshore fishing. Political will must be generated to promote/approve changes to the legislation. Mechanisms to do so include: (a) calculation of the cost to the government of search and rescue operations, (b) determining the number of lives lost in sea accidents in recent years in Tuvalu, and (c) publicity of the results of (a) and (b). The Fisheries Department would appreciate suggestions and examples of the inclusion of sea safety in fisheries management.

5.3 Safety programmes

Sea safety programmes that have been implemented in the last decade in Tuvalu include:

Determining the relative effectiveness of the above programmes is difficult. Most Tuvaluans seem to be aware and familiar with the radio sea safety programme. The fact that it was in the vernacular may have contributed to its recognition. Few people outside of the Fisheries Department appear to remember the craft testing programme. An emergency sail rig donated to a fisher was rarely, if ever, used. One fisher interviewed now carries flares because of the Fisheries Department's flare scheme. No safety initiatives appear to have had a negative effect on the safety of fishers.

There appears to be a consensus among Fisheries Department staff, other government officials, and fishers that improvements in sea safety in Tuvalu will revolve around the offshore troll vessels carrying safety gear. It also seems that there is general agreement that mandatory legal requirements are appropriate. Most of the debate is focused on how the costs of safety gear should be accommodated. "Fishermen cannot afford the gear" is often heard in this context. Various schemes have been proposed. One is a fund for the purchase of several safety kits (including VHF radio and spare outboard engine) for 115 boats at a total cost of A$389 275. Boat operators would purchase the gear using an interest-free loan from the fund. Another proposal is for the government to subsidize a portion of the cost of safety gear. One idea is for the Fisheries Department or island councils to hire out safety kits. No mention was made of the concept that safety gear is a business cost of operating a vessel offshore and that the selling cost of fish should reflect this expense.

If it is accepted that carrying safety gear is the most appropriate measure for improving sea safety, the main areas for future interventions are:

5.4 Data recording

Incidents concerning sea safety in Tuvalu are reported to the Police Department and are recorded along with all other complaints received. At the end of each year the complaints are categorized and the items in each category are summed up for the Police Department's annual report. According to the Acting Superintendent of Police, there are no categories dealing with sea safety and therefore the annual compilation does not provide information on such incidents.

Another source of information on sea safety incidents is the logbook on the government patrol vessel, Te Mataili. According to the Maritime Surveillance Advisor, prior to 2001 the logbook was not diligently maintained and cannot be relied upon for sea safety incidents. An examination of Te Mataili logbook entries for 2001 and 2002 shows two cases of the patrol vessel being used for search and rescue. Details are available for one of these: In May 2002 three people drifted away from Funafuti. The Te Mataili logbook indicates that the subsequent search by the patrol vessel, the Tuvalu passenger/cargo vessel, and New Zealand aircraft was unsuccessful.

Fisheries officials indicate that in the 2001/2002 period there was one serious incident in which the patrol vessel was not involved as the vessel was not in Tuvalu. In September 2001 two boys drifted away from Funafuti while fishing. One was recovered 18 hours later but as he suffers from mental problems, he has not provided useful information. The other boy and the boat were never found.

In summary, the quality of the readily available data on sea safety incidents is not high. Even for the most recent two-year period, all that can be easily concluded is that there were probably three serious incidents and at least one life was lost[5].

Improvements to the existing readily-accessible data would not be difficult to make. Police complaint records should include a specific category for incidents of sea safety. It is understood that staff of the patrol vessel have recently begun dedicating more effort to logbook entries.

5.5 Sea safety legislation

Sea safety could conceivably be covered under two laws, the Shipping Act and the Fisheries Act. There are difficulties, however, in both acts with the coverage of the type of vessels often involved with sea safety problems.

The Shipping Act applies to several categories of vessels, but the type of vessel which commonly trolls for tuna outside the lagoon does not seem to be addressed. Ten categories of vessels are recognized under three general types: (1) lagoon service vessels, (2) inter-island vessels, and (3) foreign going vessels. Vessels fishing outside the lagoon but not involved in inter-island trips do not appear to be covered by the Act.

There is a major problem associated with coverage of sea safety by the Fisheries Act. The Act states that paddling canoes, boats, punts and barges under seven metres in length are not regarded as "fishing vessels" and are thereby excluded from regulation[6]. As there are no privately owned fishing vessels in Tuvalu over seven metres, the Act does not apply to any of the commercial boats now operating in Tuvalu.

Both the Shipping Act and the Fisheries Act require simple amending in order to allow coverage of the type of vessels commonly used for offshore tuna trolling. In addition, there are advantages of including a specific provision in the Fisheries Act for the Minister to make regulations concerning sea safety. Presently the Minister has power to make regulations concerning 16 named topics, including inspection of vessels, but the purpose of the inspection is not stated.

5.6 Boatbuilding and vessel design

There has been a limited amount of fishing vessel design work specifically for Tuvalu:

According to the above boatyard manager and other sources in Tuvalu, there have been few, if any, cases of the plywood skiffs breaking up at sea. He states that, if swamped, the plywood skiffs with 40 hp engine will float bow-up in the ocean, however the boats do not paddle well.

FAO sponsored the visit of a sailmaker to Funafuti in the late 1980s. In the early 1990s an FAO consultant boatbuilder demonstrated the construction and use of an emergency sail rig. One fisher indicated that such a rig was donated to somebody in Tuvalu but it was rarely or never carried on fishing trips.

Although there is a lingering heritage of the use of sail on canoes in the outer islands of Tuvalu, the attempts to re-introduce the use of sail by Save the Children, FAO, and other agencies have not had much impact. The activity that causes most loss of life at sea, offshore tuna trolling, is one of the more difficult fisheries for the use of sail. Even during traditional times, tuna trolling was done from paddled canoes (Kennedy, 1930). Considering the conditions in Tuvalu, any potential for sail appears to be for emergency propulsion.

5.7 Observations

The major issues in improving sea safety in Tuvalu appear to be:

Some sea safety lessons-learned in Tuvalu:

[4] Some sources indicate that the island Councils in Tuvalu have some rules which relate to fisheries management. It is not clear whether any council’s rules affect the sea safety situation.
[5] Fishermen interviewed in Funafuti during the present study indicate that three Tuvalu fishermen drifting at sea for two months were picked up by a Korean fishing vessel in mid–2002. It is not clear if these men were the object of the May 2002 search.
[6] In the compendium of fisheries legislation prepared by the Forum Fisheries Agency there is a typographical error in the Tuvalu Fisheries Act which results in the Act erroneously applying to vessels less than seven metres.

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