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7. Sea safety in Samoa

7.1 General

Samoa consists of two main high islands, Upolu and Savaii, and seven smaller islands, two of which are inhabited. Reefs enclosing narrow lagoons encircle much of the coastline except for the north coast of Upolu. Due to the proximity of neighbouring countries (American Samoa, Wallis and Futuna, Tokelau and Tonga) Samoa's EEZ does not extend to 200 nautical miles offshore in any direction. At 120 000 km2, the Samoa EEZ area is the smallest in the Pacific Islands region.

The nation's capital, only urban area, and base of most commercial fishing operations is Apia, located on the north coast of Upolu.

Commercial fishing and sea safety in Samoa is closely linked with the "alia" catamaran fishing craft. Notable aspects of the fleet are given in Gillett (2002). The original plywood alia catamarans were designed by FAO in conjunction with a Danish-funded fisheries development project in the mid-1970s. The first 120 craft were constructed in plywood and then several hundred more were built from welded aluminium. In the early to mid-1980s the alia fleet numbered some 200 craft. Initially much of the fleet engaged in bottom fishing along the shelf area and reef slopes, landing high-value deep-water snappers for air-export to Hawaii. However as the deep-bottom resource became more heavily exploited, fishing effort began to be re-directed offshore, with fishers targeting skipjack and small yellowfin tuna by trolling around fish aggregation devices (FADs). The fleet was reduced still further, to only 40 vessels, as a result of the destruction caused by two severe cyclones which struck Samoa in 1991.

The introduction of effective small-scale longline fishing techniques and gear in the early 1990s saw the number of alia grow rapidly during the decade. The development in the mid-1990s of an export market for albacore and other tuna resulted in further expansion in the fishery. The status of the tuna fleet in 2000 was:

Watt and Imo (2002) state that a total of 149 vessels participated in the Samoa longline tuna fishery in 2001: 116 vessels less than ten metres in length, 14 vessels over ten metres and up to 12.5 metres, eight vessels over 12.5 metres and up to 15 metres, and 11 vessels over 15 metres. Because of the poor tuna fishing in early 2003, the active alia fleet (vessels in the category of "less than less than ten metres") has contracted considerably. In February 2003, only 17 alia were active in the Apia area and about 20 to 25 in rural areas. The size of the alia longline fleet has actually contracted more than these numbers suggest as many of the active boats participated in fisheries other than tuna longlining (bottom fishing, trolling).

A typical safety incident at sea in Samoa involves an alia, or modified alia, fishing more than 25 nautical miles offshore which has either (a) suffered a engine problem, or (b) been so heavily loaded that it has swamped, or (c) lost sight of the island and has travelled in the wrong direction until the fuel has been expended. Over the years, Samoan fishers have drifted to American Samoa, Niue, Tonga, Wallis, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu[11].

7.2 Fisheries management and sea safety

Samoa's main fishery categories are the small-scale inshore fisheries and the offshore commercial fishery. The management objectives and strategies for these two categories are quite different.

According to the Fisheries Division, the goal of the government intervention in small-scale inshore fisheries is for a village to effectively manage their own fisheries resources. The strategy to achieve this goal is for the Fisheries Division to assist each coastal village to develop its own Village Fisheries Management Plan and subsequently for the Fisheries Division to provide management support. At the village level the objectives of management are usually related to safeguarding seafood supplies. Because of the large number of coastal villages in Samoa (about 230), there are consequently a large array of management measures used in the individual fishery management plans. The most common are:

These management measures are not likely to have an effect on the sea safety situation. A possible exception to this is that in some villages the measures may reduce the inshore fisheries opportunities and therefore may encourage some individuals to fish in the less restricted offshore areas.

For the offshore commercial fishery, the Cabinet-adopted tuna management plan states "the aim of managing the longline tuna fishery in Samoa should be to maximize catch-rates, profits and foreign exchange by restricting the number of boats in the fishery. This should be tempered with the secondary aim of encouraging wide and local participation in the fishery". Recent action by the government also suggests that another important management objective is to reduce the number of lives lost at sea in the fishery.

The latest tuna management plan was approved by Cabinet in February 2002. The new plan includes provisions for the following numbers of vessels:

Another management restriction is that large vessels (those over 15 metres) are prohibited from fishing within 50 nautical miles of any land within Samoa's EEZ.

The above management measures have several effects on sea safety. The exclusion of large vessels in the area within 50 miles of the coast creates some incentive for the smaller, more accident-prone vessels to operate closer to shore. During periods when there is considerable interest in tuna longlining, it is conceivable that the only licences available are for the small Class A vessels, which have the worst safety record. Presently, however, there are licences available in the other categories.

Although sea safety is not specifically articulated as an objective of the management of the tuna fishery, government interventions in the fishery in the past few years indicate that prevention of loss of life at sea is an important goal. This is evidenced by safety provisions in Fisheries Amendment Act 1999, Local Fisheries Regulations 1995, and the Small Vessel Safety Regulations 1999 under the Shipping Act 1999.

7.3 Safety programmes

The major initiative of the Fisheries Division in sea safety is communication with the longline fleet. According to a recent annual report of the Fisheries Division, "the Fishermen Safety at Sea Radio Communication Network has remained one of the Fisheries Division's most successful contribution to the fishing industry. The fishing vessel owners as well as the fishers have appreciated the services offered not only for daily monitoring of the vessel movements but for the provision of weather forecasts and information about fishing grounds. Through the availability of free communication system, they are well advised of the arrival time and be informed immediately should the vessel encounter any problems whilst fishing. At the time of this report, there are close to 300 fishing vessels and users currently utilizing the system''. The system was upgraded in the late 1990s and now has extra VHF channels for both Upolu and Savaii, 11 repeater stations, five SSB channels, and continuous 24-hour monitoring. In addition, 100 VHF radios have been provided to alia craft.

Another major sea safety initiative in Samoa concerns legislation. The large loss of life from fishing craft in the mid-1990s led to formulating, enacting, and enforcing both fisheries and shipping regulations for small fishing. This is covered in Section 7.5 below.

Other sea safety programmes in Samoa in the past decade have included:

SPC sea safety materials have been distributed by the Fisheries Division. According to the Division's staff, the materials have included posters, stickers, check lists, and videos. Several posters are presently displayed in the main office of the Fisheries Division. The staff indicates that perhaps the videos (especially the one about the Kiribati fishers) are the most effective. They also comment "fishermen don't use check lists". Individuals outside the Fisheries Division with a connection to sea safety (Ministry of Transport officials, Police officials, fishing gear store owners) seem to be only vaguely aware of SPC sea safety materials other than the videos which are sometimes broadcast on television.

With respect to the effectiveness of the various safety programmes, the new regulations and associated enforcement seems to be by far the most effective initiative. As indicated by one senior staff at the Fisheries Division, "the big stick approach to enforcement is the only thing that works". An example was given of an alia owner who, after having his vessel drift to another country, still did not equip his vessels with safety equipment until threatened with legal action. Alia crew say that the basic safety course at the Samoa Polytechnic School of Maritime Training is good, citing the fact that many crew are plantation boys who know nothing about the sea and certainly not knowledgeable enough to refuse to go to sea on an unsafe boat.

On the basis of the short visit to Samoa, it appears that sea safety programmes in Samoa could be further improved by:

7.4 Data recording

The present system for recording information on sea and rescue operations of the Samoa Police, Prisons and Fire Service for maritime search and rescue commenced in 1996. According to the Maritime Surveillance Adviser, when each sea safety incident is reported, a detailed form is filled out. Each event is summarized in a database: sequential number, date, vessel type, and owner, number persons on board, area, sea asset hours, air asset hours, and remarks. This summary information can be further summarized by year as:


Number of SAR Incidents

Number of Lives Lost








Two incidents involved non-fishing operations: ferry, yacht




One incident may be non-fishing










One vessel recovered in PNG







The Fisheries Division maintains an independent list of fisheries-related sea safety incidents involving loss of life. According to the responsible officer, the list spans the period from 1996 to the present. The list contains 17 incidents and 39 lives lost.

Some of the differences between the two lists could possibly be accounted for by (a) the police including incidents not related to fishing vessels, and (b) not correcting lists for people who turn up on some distant island months later.

Analysis of the data available to the Fisheries Division shows:

The above information has implications for enforcement of the sea safety. It would suggest that compliance operations should focus on alias based in rural areas just prior to August.

7.5 Legislation

The important legislation in Samoa for sea safety in fishing vessels is:

The Fisheries Amendment Act 1999 (and subsidiary legislation) is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries and Meteorology. The sections of the Act relevant to sea safety are:

(1) The Director shall maintain a register of local fishing vessels engaged, at any time, in commercial fishing activities.

(2) Subject to subsection (3), no local fishing vessel shall be operated in the fishery waters unless such vessel has been registered under this section.

(3) Subsection (2) shall not apply to any local fishing vessel used solely for sport fishing, pleasure, recreation or for subsistence fishing.

(4) An application for registration shall be made to the Director in the form approved from time to time by the Director, and shall be accompanied by the prescribed fee.

(5) Upon receipt of an application the Director may cause the vessel to be inspected.

(6) The Director may issue a certificate of registration if he is satisfied that (a) The vessel is in all respects fit for fishing and equipped with all necessary life-saving appliances and apparatus; and (b) Any safety certificate required under the Shipping Act 1998 and its Regulations is current in respect of that vessel; and (c) The vessel and its proposed operations are otherwise in complete compliance with the requirements of the Shipping Act 1998 and its Regulations; and (d) The vessel and its proposed operations are in complete compliance with any other matters or conditions that may be prescribed.

The relevant sections of the Local Fisheries Regulations 1995 state:

(1) Where a certificate of registration has been issued in respect of a local commercial fishing vessel under section 5 of the Act, the Director may by notice in writing to the owner of the local commercial fishing vessel in addition require that the vessel is equipped with any or all of the following:

(a) a two way radio;
(b) an anchor rope of no( less than two hundred metres (200 m) in length and an anchor;
(c) two functioning outboard engines;
(d) navigation lights;
(e) such other equipment that he considers necessary or desirable for the safety of the vessel.

(2) Where a local commercial fishing vessel puts to sea without such equipment as may be required under the preceding paragraph, or in contravention of section 5 of the Act, the Director may revoke the certificate of registration issued under section 5 of the Act, and the owner master and charterer each commits an offence against these regulations.

The Shipping Act 1998 states that regulations can be made "in respect of all vessels, including fishing vessels". This act (and subsidiary legislation) is the responsibility of the Ministry of Transport.

The Shipping (Small Vessels) Regulations 1999 "apply to all vessels in Samoa waters that are less than 15 metres in length". The regulations stipulate that the vessels covered must have safety and seaworthiness certificates and be registered with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries and Meteorology. The regulations cover (as summarized in GRM, undated):

Important provisions include:

The Maritime Division of the Ministry of Transport has the responsibility for inspection of vessels as required by the Shipping Act 1998 and subsidiary legislation. To accommodate this, five surveyors at the Ministry of Transport have been recently trained in small fishing boat survey techniques.

The enforcement of the safety regulations is done jointly by the police, Ministry of Transport, and the Fisheries Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries and Meteorology. According to an official of the Ministry of Transport, an enforcement plan is formulated at the beginning of each year. The main enforcement problems are:

From the analysis of the data on sea safety incidents, it can be seen that alia based in rural areas suffer a disproportionate amount of accidents at sea. This would suggest that additional enforcement focus on areas away from Apia is required. The data may also indicate that enforcement just prior to the August - September period would be most effective at reducing loss of life.

7.6 Boatbuilding and vessel design

FAO designed the original 8.6 metres plywood alia catamaran in 1974. Additional plans were produced by FAO in 1976. In 1980 plans were produced for an 8.9 metres aluminium alia (three sheets: structural arrangements, sections 2/6, and plate plan and press).

The original plywood alia was designed with an emergency sail of 12.3 m2. Fisheries Division officials do not recall the use of sail, and certainly not in the past decade.

Over the years the design of the alia has been modified by both designers and builders. Data on sea safety incidents shows that most of the serious accidents are associated with modified alia designs. During the alia construction boom of the mid-1990s many of the catamarans were poorly constructed and had serious design flaws (e.g. insufficient buoyancy resulted in alias sinking after being swamped).

To address the issue of poor designs and poor construction, the Shipping (Small Vessels) Regulations 1999 has design/construction requirements. The Regulations state: "all vessels must be built to the specifications and in accordance with the construction plan approved by the Secretary. Specifications and construction plans submitted for approval must have the endorsement of a qualified naval architect or any other competent person authorized and recognized by the Secretary".

According to staff of the Fisheries Division, five boatbuilders are currently approved by the Secretary of Transport. This is a very slack period for fishing vessel construction in Samoa because there are a very large number of repossessed vessels being sold cheaply by the Development Bank.

In response to the reality that tuna longlining far offshore from a small undecked catamaran is inherently unsafe, the Fisheries Division promoted in the late 1990s the concept of larger and safer "super alia" catamaran. Faasili et al. (2000) states "The newly designed 40 ft alia prototype planned to be the next generation of alia fishing boats was completed in April 2000. The boat, which was fully equipped cost about T$371 000 (about US$120 000) was scheduled to undertake a six-month fishing trial to determine its economic viability." Some fishers are, however, of the opinion that for tuna longlining, better and cheaper vessels are available overseas.

Given this boatbuilding situation, the major issues in Samoa in the interface between naval architecture and sea safety appear to be:

With respect to vessel design work, Fisheries Division officials, although grateful to FAO for past efforts, feel that at this point safety improvement initiatives should focus on enforcement of legislation, awareness programmes, and safety training, rather than naval architecture.

7.7 Observations

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

Some sea safety lessons-learned in Samoa:

[11] Alia sea safety incidents are not restricted to Samoa. In July 1994 two men floated for two days after their alia (previously owned by FAO) sank off Beqa Island in Fiji.

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