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6. Sea safety in Tonga

6.1 General

Tonga is made up of approximately 150 islands, of which about 36 are inhabited. The islands are distributed in three main groups - Tongatapu (location of the capital and administrative centre, Nuku'alofa) and neighbouring islands in the south, the Ha'apai group located centrally, and the Vava'u group to the north. Other islands extend the archipelago further north and south beyond the three main groups.

In early 2003 the local fishing fleet consisted of:

According to staff of the Ministry of Fisheries and commercial fishing companies, the major causes of sea safety incidents are outboard engine mechanical problems, battery problems for craft powered by inboard engines, and sudden deterioration of weather conditions. The snapper fishery, in which the mainly small participating boats have moved progressively further offshore over the last two decades (some are now fishing over 100 nautical miles offshore), causes many of the major sea safety problems.

The geography and climate of the area has a large impact on sea safety. Fiji's Lau Group to the west consists of almost a hundred islands and reefs sprinkled in a north/south line about half the distance between Tonga and Fiji's main island of Viti Levu. From north to south the Lau Islands stretch over 250 nautical miles and the distance between the islands is usually less than 20 miles. This geography and the prevailing winds from the east causes the Lau Group to form a net and the majority of vessels drifting away from Tongatapu, Ha'apai, and Vava'u eventually end up in Lau.

6.2 Fisheries management and sea safety

Government management interventions in the fisheries sector can be categorized by fishery resource: tuna, snapper/bottomfish, and inshore resources.

The management of the tuna fisheries in Tonga is specified in the Tonga National Tuna Management and Development Plan. According to the Plan, the objectives of management of the Tonga's tuna fishery are to: (a) ensure that the utilisation of Tonga's national tuna resource is compatible with the sustainable harvesting of the tuna stocks throughout their range; (b) maximize economic benefits to Tonga from the utilization of its tuna resources, including harvesting and processing; and (c) contribute to the food security of Tongan subjects and, through the sustainable utilisation of the tuna stocks, the global community. The primary management tool is a limit on the licensing of vessels over 13 metres in length, which is currently set at 50 vessels. Sea safety has been incorporated into the management plans to the extent that there are three provisions addressing safety:

The arrangements for the management of the fishery for deepwater snapper and other bottomfish are presently being formalized in a fisheries management plan. In the past there were informal arrangements for management, including some notions of objectives. The de-facto fishery management objective of protecting the resources from over-exploitation, was apparently achieved by the economics of the fishery (i.e. when there were too many vessels fishing, profitability was low, some vessels dropped out of the fishery, and the stock was able to recover to some extent). With the assistance of SPC and the Tonga AusAID Fisheries Project, the Ministry of Fisheries is in the process of producing a management plan for the fishery as required under the Fisheries Act 1989[7]. According to officials of the Ministry of Fisheries, sea safety has not received special attention in the management plans presently being formulated. The major safety issue associated with management of the fishery is that resource depletion on the nearby seamounts, possibly due to past management deficiencies, causes the boats to venture far offshore.

The management of Tonga's inshore fisheries is complex. According to the 1998 FAO/AusAID Fisheries Sector Review (Gillett et al., 1998), increased fishing pressure driven by improved access to markets, rising prices, and population growth is resulting in marked declines in important inshore marine resources. Unlike the situation in other Pacific Island countries, coastal communities in Tonga have no preferential access to adjacent resources. This open-access situation may have worked reasonably well in the era of subsistence fisheries, but it has recently collided with commercial realities and the carrying capacity of inshore resources. The Ministry's management interventions in inshore fisheries appear to fall into two categories: (1) Implementation of the provisions of the Fisheries (Conservation and Management) Regulations 1993 (e.g lobster size limits) and (2) bold action in support of fisheries which have collapsed (eg. banning the export of giant clams in 1994, banning the export of bêche de mer in 1997). Enforcement of legislation is reported to be weak. Sea safety is not a major consideration in the inshore management arrangements. The main sea safety issues in the inshore fisheries[8] are that in the Ha'apai Group, inshore fishing can involve trips between islands and both mechanical breakdowns and swampings occasionally occur. In Tongatapu and Vava'u, however, the barrier reefs offer some degree of protection.

Fisheries management officials at the Ministry of Fisheries are not familiar with the concept of including sea safety in fisheries management initiatives, but there seems to be willingness to do so. It presently appears to be a situation of the Ministry focusing on the basics of resource management.

With respect to ensuring that sea safety is included in fisheries management for the future, the two major possibilities appear to be awareness raising for the senior staff of the Ministry of Fisheries and generation of political will through better data on the extent of the sea safety problem.

6.3 Safety programmes

The Ministry of Fisheries presently has some involvement in promoting sea safety:

The Tonga/AusAID Fisheries Project at the Ministry of Fisheries has several components dealing with sea safety. According to the project design document, the involvement consists of:

The Ministry of Marine and Ports is involved in sea safety for fishing vessels as they are responsible for issuing survey certificates required for a fisheries licence. The Ministry of Marine and Ports also manages the Coast Watch radio scheme which receives regular radio position reports from vessels and broadcasts weather reports.

Other initiatives relevant to sea safety in fisheries in Tonga include:

It is difficult to determine the effectiveness of the various sea safety programmes. Many Tongans cite the Ministry of Fisheries radio programme as the initiative they are most familiar with. The fishing companies seem to favour the safety courses at the Tonga Maritime Polytechnic Institute (TMPI). Staff of the Ministry of Marine and Ports point out that the manning regulations are effective, citing the fact that the worst recent sea disaster involved a fishing vessel that did not have crew with the proper certification.

The SPC-sponsored safety initiative that appears to be the best known on Tongatapu is the videos that have been periodically broadcast on television. The SPC sea safety posters are not common outside of the Ministry of Fisheries office. The larger companies appreciate the safety advocacy of the SPC masterfishers.

The important areas for future interventions appear to be:

6.4 Data recording

The Ministry of Police, the Ministry of Marine and Ports, and the Tongan Defence Services are involved in recording data on sea safety incidents.

As the Ministry of Police is the lead agency on search and rescue, they receive all initial reports of sea safety incidents. These are kept on file and, according to the staff of the Emergency Services Division, the information is extracted and summarized in the Annual Report of the Minister of Police. It was also explained that the annual police reports are available from the Government Printer and from the Police Headquarters.

Attempts were made to obtain copies of previous editions of the Annual Report of the Minister of Police. Visits were made to several police offices without success. The Government Printer indicated that they have not retained copies of the annual report since 1994. A copy of the 1995 Annual Report was found in the private collection of a Tongan journalist. The only information on sea safety it contained was (1) a summary of the activities of the police launch in Vava'u (3) incidents which may be fisheries-related, and (2) a summary of activities of the police launch in Ha'apai (one incident which may be fisheries-related). It can be concluded that the police annual reports are not especially useful for analysing incidents of sea safety in Tonga.

The Ministry of Marine and Ports is also involved in recording data on sea safety incidents. As with the police, important incidents involving the Ministry are recorded and subsequently filed. The staff of the Ministry of Marine and Ports indicated that the Ministry's involvement in search and rescue is summarized in the Annual Report of the Minister of Marine and Ports (as for the Police annual report, this is not available at the Government Printer), and occasionally in other reports prepared for various meetings, especially that for annual meetings of the Association of Pacific Island Maritime Training Institutions and Maritime Authorities (APIMTIMA).

The 2001 APIMTIMA report provides information the SAR operations in Tonga from August 1981 to November 1998. The report gives the date of the incident, the agency searching, the name of the missing vessel (or people missing), "Expenses Fuel or dollars" and comment. Ninety-nine incidents are given. Some of the incidents involve fishing vessels, but many concern yachts and for others the type of vessel cannot be determined from the summary information given (e.g. "4 Oct. 1996 Rescue Topex"). Some non-vessel incidents are also given (e.g. "11 Feb. 1995 Phanrom beaco"). The stated costs of the SAR operations range from between $300 to $137 700[9] The comment section for most incidents is blank; "found", "not found", and "found later" is given for some of the incidents.

The 2002 APIMTIMA report gives the 2001 SAR activities: 14 incidents, of which nine were for fishing vessels, three for yachts, and two for inter island cargo vessels. No details are given.

Another report provided by the Ministry of Marine and Ports is titled "Search and Rescue 1999-2001". It gives the date and a short description of the incidents of SAR. In summary: 1999 - ten; 2000 - five; 2001 (through May) - four. Some of the incidents involve fishing vessels, some involve other types of vessels, and for some it is not possible to determine the type of craft. For example, one entry gives "Search for a vessel of about 15 metres owned by Mr Jones was overdue and later found everyone onboard including the boat were safe and sound".

The Navy also keeps records for the search and rescue operations that they are involved in. The report is made by the Captain of the patrol boat involved and is passed through the Commander of the Navy to headquarters where it is filed. According to Tonga Defence Services (TDS) staff, the search and rescue information is not normally summarized and no analysis is undertaken. TDS staff indicated that this is because of priorities, the most important of which is to return victims to land.

It is important to note that the data on sea safety incidents held by the Ministry of Police Ministry of Marine and Ports, and the TDS is limited to those operations in which they were involved. The operators of the larger fishing companies stress that most incidents involving the offshore vessels (tuna longline and snapper boats) are resolved within the company fleet or between companies. They indicate that, because of the cumbersome and lengthy procedures to initiate a government SAR operation, the companies often do their own search and rescue work, so the number of incidents reported to the Police or Marine is much less than the total number of actual incidents.

Some recent important sea safety incidents are:

With respect to summarizing sea safety incidents in the past two decades, it appears that:

6.5 Legislation

With respect to sea safety, the Fisheries Act 1989 states:

A new fisheries act has been recently been approved by Parliament. Because it has not yet received the assent of the King, the Fisheries Act 1989 is still in force. With respect to safety, the new act:

Two points regarding sea safety under the new act should be noted:

The Shipping (Amendment) Act 1999 is the major legislation relevant to the operation and safety of all vessels in Tonga. Unlike previous legislation, the Act specifically includes fishing vessels;

According to the Secretary for Marine and Ports, regulations under the Act have been formulated by SPC but not yet approved by the Minister for Marine and Ports. The Ministry is involved in satisfying Fisheries Act requirements for a fisheries licence as they issue safety certificates covering seaworthiness, covering the hull, machinery/equipment (including safety gear), and manning. The legal authority for manning requirements for fishing vessels is based on the regulations under the Shipping STCW Convention 1998.

Although the Fisheries Act requires the licensing of all vessels over six metres (except those used for subsistence and sport fishing), in practice only those boats used for commercial tuna longlining and offshore bottom-fishing are licensed and have the required safety certificate. This does not appear to have arisen from a policy decision but rather from ease of enforcement. As stated by the manager of one fishing company, "the Ministry only enforces the law on company boats, not those belonging to individuals". Because the companies tend to have better safety practices and search/rescue procedures, this may result in the safety requirements having the least effect on the most accident-prone vessels.

Some possibilities for improving sea safety legislation are:

6.6 Boatbuilding and vessel design

In the early 1980s an FAO/UNDP/UNCDF initiative was undertaken to develop the deepwater snapper fishery by designing appropriate vessels, establishing three boatyards, constructing vessels and training fishers. Ministry of Fisheries records indicate that over the past two decades 46 FAO-designed vessels were built in the 20, 21, 28, and 32 ft categories. The best known of these vessels is the Ton-7, a broad-beam decked boat. The last one was built at the Ministry of Fisheries boatyard in 1997. As of early 2003, a small number of Ton-7 still participate in the snapper fishery.

At the request of the Ministry of Fisheries, FAO produced a concept for a tuna longliner for Tonga in the late 1990s. This design was not built due to the scaling down of the Ministry boatyard and preferences of the fishing companies. The design also generated some controversy with SPC staff who was promoting larger vessels.

The FAO snapper boats have had a mixed effect on sea safety in Tonga. On one hand, the boats were quite seaworthy, constructed well, equipped with safety gear, and the owners received training on vessel operations, including safety aspects. The vessels and associated programme commenced the export snapper fishery which has been responsible for many of the major sea safety incidents in Tonga. The fact that the fishery targets seamounts, most of which are a considerable distance offshore, is the main difficulty.

Attempts to introduce sail on fishing vessels in Tonga have not met with much success. Most, if not all of the FAO designs built by the government boatyard were originally equipped with, or at least designed for, emergency or steadying sails. Over time, the owners did not replace the sails as they deteriorated. Few, if any, vessels, inshore or offshore, presently carry sails.

There is only a limited amount of boatbuilding in Tonga at present. The Ministry of Fisheries boatyard in Tongatapu, the subject of many external privatization initiatives during the past 15 years, completed the last FAO/UNCDF boat about five years ago and is mainly involved in small contract jobs, including repairs. The Ministry boatyards in Ha'apai and Vava'u are now doing cyclone repair work. Three very small boatyards are reported to exist (Tongatapu, 'Euaiki, Ha'apai). Some small wooden boats are built on a semi-commercial basis and one fibreglass firm occasionally builds skiffs.

The reality is that boatbuilding is expensive in Tonga and in the age of globalization, the market forces and preferences of fishers favour the use of mass produced skiffs from overseas. With respect to larger vessel for snapper and tuna fishing, the fishing companies much prefer to import new or used vessels from Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, or Asia. Boatbuilding skills in Tonga are therefore more likely to be used for repair of the existing fleet, rather than for major new construction initiatives. Given this boatbuilding situation, the main issue in Tonga in the interface between naval architecture and sea safety appears to be measures to assure that the imported vessels are safe. This may range from establishing import standards for mass-produced skiffs to identification of features important for the safety inspections of Chinese longliners.

6.7 Observations

The main issues in improving sea safety in Tonga appear to be:

Some sea safety lessons-learned in Tonga:

[7] A new fisheries act has been passed by Parliament recently. Because it has not yet received the assent of the King, the Fisheries Act 1989 is still in force.
[8] Diving accidents, especially in the beche-de-mer fishery, were common before the export ban in the mid–1990s but the subject of diving is not covered in this report.
[9] It is presumed that the currency is the Tonga Pa’anga but this is not stated.
[10] Under the new act a "local fishing vessel" means any fishing vessel (a) wholly owned by the Government of Tonga or by any Statutory Body established under any law of Tonga; (b) wholly owned by one or more natural persons who are Tongan subjects; or (c) wholly owned by any company, society or other association or persons incorporated or established under the laws of Tonga;

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