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".
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. 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:
The absence of management measures focused on preventing over-exploitation of inshore fisheries may have led to resource decline and indirectly promoted more offshore tuna trolling, the fishery that causes most sea safety problems.
One of the objectives of fisheries management in Tuvalu is to maximize the generation of government revenue by licensing foreign fishing vessels. The resulting large number of foreign vessels in the Tuvalu EEZ may create conditions favourable for the recovery of Tuvalu fishing vessels in distress.
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:
One of the six development strategies of the Plan is "enhancing the skills of Tuvaluans in tuna fisheries, including sea safety certificate training for all skippers, crew and with the programme being extended to other Tuvaluans fishing outside the reef."
One of the initiatives to promote domestic tuna development is through "Small Boat Regulation - a working group is to be established to develop small boat Regulations covering especially the carrying of appropriate sea safety equipment."
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.
Sea safety programmes that have been implemented in the last decade in Tuvalu include:
Craft testing programme (late 1980s to early 1990s): several fishing vessels were constructed and tested. One of the objectives was to promote the use of safer vessels, including the use of emergency sail rigs. The programme did not result in fishers using safer vessels or carrying emergency rigs.
Radio awareness programme (mid-1990s): using SPC technical material, a series of radio programmes were broadcast over the national radio station. Most people in Tuvalu seem to recall the programme and many fishers feel that it was effective in causing them to think about safety issues.
Provision of flares (mid-1990s): the Fisheries Department provided a total of about 20 sets of flares free of charge to selected fishers. There was a requirement that the flares used be replaced at cost by the user. Fisheries Department officials are unsure if any of the flares were used in actual distress incidents. Some fishers feel that it encouraged the use of flares, or at least publicized the value of flares.
SPC awareness materials (mid-1990s and continuing): SPC has furnished free-of-charge to Tuvalu brochures, posters, stickers, and videos. The effectiveness is difficult to gauge, but the poster seems to be the most prevalent, at least in government offices. Fishers interviewed did not recall seeing the video.
Canada Fund project on sea safety training for Nukulaelae Atoll (just approved, not yet commenced): A$12 000 is now available for the training of people from this atoll in the use of flares, radios, charts, and general safety. This is to be followed by the Island Council managing a scheme for the hire of such safety gear.
Although not strictly a "programme", the arrival of the Australian-funded patrol boat, Te Mataili, in 1994 affected the sea safety situation. According to the Maritime Surveillance Advisor, the patrol vessel in the last two years participated in two operations searching for missing fishers.
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:
Promulgation of safety gear requirements
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.
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.
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. 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.
There has been a limited amount of fishing vessel design work specifically for Tuvalu:
In the early 1980s Save the Children Foundation commissioned a US-based naval architect to produce designs for sailing/fishing multi-hull craft for Tuvalu, including a 7.3 metre catamaran and a 4.7 metres paddling canoe. A few of the larger craft were built in the Foundation's Funafuti boatyard but did not result in the design being adopted by local boatbuilders and fishers. According to Gulbrandson and Savins (1987) about 100 of the paddling canoes were built for the outer islands in Tuvalu.
The manager of one of the three boatyards in Funafuti (former employee of the Save the Children boatyard) stated he has modified the design of an 18 ft plywood outboard skiff for local conditions: a flat bottom for lagoon use and a V-bottom for trolling in the ocean. He is not aware of anyone in Tuvalu building any fishing craft other than the traditional canoes and skiffs to be powered by outboards.
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.
The major issues in improving sea safety in Tuvalu appear to be:
Upgrading the recording and analysis of sea accident data; publicizing sea accident data.
Modifications to the Fisheries Act and Shipping Act to allow for coverage of the type of vessels commonly involved in sea safety incidents.
Formulation of a strategy which would result in offshore fishers carrying safety gear.
Some sea safety lessons-learned in Tuvalu:
Having offshore safety gear available is no guarantee that it will be used.
Radio programmes on sea safety in the vernacular appear to have a major impact.
Lack of recording, analysis, and publicity of sea accidents and government costs associated with these accidents, can lead to weak political will for sea safety improvements.
Convincing fishers to change their habits may take considerable effort. One Tuvalu man was involved in a mishap in December 1995 and drifted for 25 days, He was involved in a very similar situation 13 months later and drifted for another 25 days. He now is an advocate of mandatory safety gear requirements.
 Some sources
indicate that the island Councils in Tuvalu have some rules which relate to
fisheries management. It is not clear whether any councils rules affect
the sea safety situation.|
 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 mid2002. It is not clear if these men were the object of the May 2002 search.
 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.