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9. Sea safety in Kiribati[14]

9.1 General

Kiribati is an archipelagic nation comprising 33 islands with a total land area of only 810 km2 but with a surrounding EEZ of about 3.5 million km2 that includes some of the most productive tuna fishing grounds in the Pacific. All the islands are of coralline origin and are surrounded by fringing or barrier coral reefs. The country is divided into three widely separated island groups - the Gilbert Group in the west, the Phoenix Group in the centre, and the Line Islands in the east. The distance between the eastern and western extremes of the EEZ is over 4 500 km. Tarawa Atoll is the location of the capital and several urban areas.

About 90 000 people live in Kiribati. Preston (2000) estimated that 1 131 people are employed in commercial harvesting and 20 000 employed in subsistence fishing. In recent years Kiribati has received around US$20 million each year from licensing foreign fishing vessels. In early 2001 a total of about 350 foreign fishing vessels were licensed to fish in Kiribati waters. Two longliners and one purse seiner are based and/or registered in Kiribati.

Subsistence and small-scale artisanal fishing is conducted throughout the islands, from traditional canoes driven by sail or paddle, from plywood canoes powered by outboard motor and from larger outboard-powered skiffs. Fishing is by bottom handlining, trolling, pole-and-line fishing, midwater handlining, spearing, trapping, netting and reef gleaning. Small-scale commercial fishing is concentrated around Tarawa where a sizeable population, some ice and cold store facilities, and a cash-oriented economy create better market conditions. Household survey data from 1995 shows a total of 565 skiffs and 3 968 canoes in the country. Of the skiffs, 407 (72 percent) were based in Tarawa. Savins (2001) states that (a) there are over 200 troll boats presently active on Tarawa which employ 300 fishers full time and 300 fishers part time.

Features of Kiribati which are especially important in sea safety include:

A typical sea accident involves a Tarawa-based skiff trolling for tuna at a considerable distance from land and experiencing mechanical or fuel problems and drifting days or months until recovered by a foreign fishing vessel.

9.2 Fisheries management and sea safety

The broad objectives of fisheries management in Kiribati are articulated in the annual reports of the Fisheries Division. Fisheries Division (2000) states the goals are:

Other indications of fisheries management objectives are located in legislation and in development plans:

From the above, the safety of fishers does not appear to be a prominent fisheries management objective.

With respect to specific management measures in the inshore areas, the national fisheries legislation stipulates:

In addition to management intervention specified by the fisheries legislation, there are several other types of measures:

With respect to offshore fisheries management, the primary objective appears to be generation of government revenue and the main measure to achieve this objective is to license foreign fishing vessels for a fee. In early 2001 a total of about 350 foreign fishing vessels were licensed to fish in Kiribati waters. An important restriction is that Kiribati licensing policy prohibits foreign tuna fishing activity within 12 nautical miles of any island in Kiribati.

There are several effects of the above fisheries management on sea safety.

9.3 Safety programmes

Sea Safety is an ongoing feature of the Fisheries Division's training programme, especially that dealing with outboard engines. An outboard mechanical training workshop has been established at the Fisheries Division, funded by Japan's Overseas Fisheries Cooperation Foundation (OFCF). Most of the participants are island council mechanics and, after training, they pass on their skills through similar workshops on their home island. Because outboard motor breakdown is the most common cause of problems at sea, an outboard motor maintenance and repair manual has been produced in the Kiribati language.

Other safety-related initiatives of the Fisheries Division include:

At the request of the Fisheries Division, SPC is producing safety at sea posters in the Kiribati language. Almost every fuel station on Tarawa has displayed posters and they have been sent to all island councils and outer island fisheries assistants. A local video company has been contracted to translate the SPC safety at sea video into the Kiribati language. Earlier the English version was sent to every Island council in Kiribati for public showing. The video was also made available at video stores in Tarawa for loaning at no charge. A Fisheries assistant on Marekei reported that the video was widely viewed and well received on the Island.

In the early 1990s the FAO Regional Fisheries Support Programme designed, manufactured and promoted a simple emergency sail rig for small vessels. In Tarawa there were advertisements, meetings, and demonstrations, but attendance was poor. One boat was fitted with the rig in Bairiki and two in Betio. It is believed, that fishers only used the rigs for a limited time then left them at home. A Senior Fisheries officer has commented that the emergency sail rigs are too cumbersome and will always be left at home. He therefore believes that radios are more appropriate for safety than sails.

The Tarawa Technical Institute (TTI) has conducted several outboard motor maintenance and repair workshops, targeting outer island participants. In 1988 TTI conducted evening classes for fishers. The course covered basic safety at sea issues and basic navigation. The course was popular, each course ran for two weeks, and about 12 courses were held over a one-year period. Every fisher who attended was presented with a compass at the end of the course.

The Marine Division has carried out training for captains to obtain a lagoon licence which cover the trip to Abaiang, where the more regular passenger ferries operate. The Marine Division through the Marine Training School has upgraded all grade 4 and grade 5 captains and engineers, while all grades 3, 2 and 1 have been upgraded in Fiji, Australia or New Zealand.

Various donor initiatives in fisheries development have contained safety components. The Outer Island Fisheries Project (first UK (1985-1992), then Japan (1992-present) has insisted on safety measures for its fishing craft, including small sea gull engines and emergency sail rigs. In the UNDP/FAO Artisanal Boatbuilding Project (1982 to 1989) the main priority was producing safer commercial fishing craft.

The effectiveness of the above initiatives effective is not always easy to judge. Some observations are:

Some safety initiatives may have had little or adverse effect on fisher's safety. The auxiliary outboard motors supplied by the UK Outer Island Project mostly ended up on relative's traditional canoes, as these engines are ideal on traditional canoes. Many of the emergency sail rigs are left at home. The HF radio repeaters are only of use if fishers can obtain radios at a cost perceived to be reasonable. The VMS system may prove too costly.

There are several options for improving sea safety in Kiribati. Facilitating access to safety gear, enhancement of boatbuilding skills, safety awareness, and regulations covering sea safety appear to be the most important.

Fishers interviewed stated they were willing to buy safety equipment if available. The Fisheries Division indicates they would like to sell safety equipment for fishing boats at cost price, under the same revolving fund they currently run for fishing equipment. Another possibility is to make available a low cost sea safety kit and allow fishers to purchase the kit on credit.

Local boatbuilding skills could make a major contribution to sea safety in Kiribati. Although the Kiribati vessel designs are generally seaworthy, the standard of construction is often very poor, leading to problems at sea. Presently, there are only a few competent boatbuilders. There is a need to train young school leavers how to build boats correctly to eliminate the types of sea accidents caused by poor construction. The same boatbuilding skills are also in demand for repairing existing craft, which could also have a positive effect on safety.

There is a need to educate fishers on every island concerning the need for, and use of, safety gear. The use of radio (see section above) could play an important role.

There is support for mandatory safety requirements on fishing vessels. Some people feel that training about safety at sea should be compulsory before anyone is allowed to take a boat to sea. The Director of Marine in the Ministry of Communications believes that there must be compulsory inspection of fishing boats.

SPC staff have recently visited Kiribati and commented on improvements to sea safety. The report of the mission (Chapman, 2003) made three suggestions concerning safety:

9.4 Data recording

In Kiribati the authority responsible for sea safety data recording is the Registrar of Seamen, Marine Division, and Ministry of Communications. Missing fishers are reported to the Marine Division, usually by their families. This report is placed in a general file.

Upon receiving a report, the Marine Division will first phone all nearby islands and establish if the boat has turned up at an alternative island. If not, a full-scale search is mounted immediately, The Marine Division may charter aircraft, inter-island vessels, or request the police patrol boat to assist, with all expenses covered by the Marine Division. The Marine Division also advise Fisheries Division Licensing Unit, who then requests any distant water vessels in the area to keep a look out for the missing craft.

According to staff of the Marine Division, to compile a summary of sea accidents for past years would require a search through many files, some of which may have been lost. For the past two years, the missing craft data can be summarized as:



Missing craft



Returned safely ashore









The Marine Division indicates that in a typical year there would be no less than 40 missing vessels reported, of which 25 would be found within three days. Three or four are likely to be rescued later locally, and around ten are found by distant water fishing vessels or commercial cargo vessels.

The missing craft information for 2001 and 2002 indicates a major difference between the years. It is likely that 2001 could be considered a normal year, while 2002 shows the effect of reduced skiff fishing due to a market glut caused by transhipping vessels discarding fish in Tarawa. A Tarawa fish exporter stated that "half the local troll fleet was out of business for almost all of 2002".

Data analysis and collection could be improved by the Marine Division having a separate file for missing vessels. Reports should include the reported details as well as information obtained from a debriefing of the victims. An annual summary should be produced and include such information as fishers involved, reason for distress, location of recovery, and sighted vessels which did not offer assistance.

9.5 Legislation

The basic fisheries law is the Fisheries Act (Cap.33). Although the word "safety" does not appear in the Act, there is a stipulation that all local fishing vessels require a licence. The Act further states that a licence is not to be issued "unless there is subsisting a valid unexpired certificate of seaworthiness issued in respect of the fishing vessel". However a "fishing vessel" is specifically defined to be "any vessel used or adapted for use for fishing commercially, and includes support vessels and craft, and helicopters and light aircraft used in fishing operations, but does not include a sailing boat or paddling canoe of native design or a boat, punt or barge having an overall length of less than seven metresetres, whether powered by an engine or not".

Another relevant feature of the Fisheries Act is that it allows the President to make regulations for 26 named purposes, none of which concerns sea safety.

In summary, it appears that it is not possible to address sea safety for small vessels through the licensing and regulation provisions of the present Fisheries Act. For fishing vessels above seven metres, the Act addresses only seaworthiness.

The Shipping Act 1990 and subsidiary legislation is applicable to only commercial cargo/passenger vessels above ten metres. A report on shipping legislation in Kiribati (SPC 2001) states "the attitude of fishing companies towards STCW is that STCW does not affect fishing vessels and therefore officers on board fishing vessels do not require further training or upgrading to STCW requirements".

The Director of Marine has expressed the belief that fishing vessels should come under the same regulations as commercial cargo and passenger craft. This sentiment appears reasonable but consideration should also be given to regulating safety on the size of vessel most often involved in sea accidents.

9.6 Boatbuilding and vessel design

In the 1980s FAO produced designs for ten different vessels, from a one-man paddling canoe to an 11 metres transport canoe. Individuals involved in that work have subsequently produced six additional designs. Local boatbuilders have continually developed their own designs of planing skiffs and a local version the FAO single outrigger canoe. Although the skiff designs appear good and three or four boatbuilders build to a safe standard, there are some problems, especially with the lack of foam for emergency floatation.

An aluminium boatyard in Fiji has been exporting four to six metres aluminium boat kits to the Betio Shipyard in Kiribati where they are put together with welding and rivets. These vessels are an appropriate design and have emergency foam floatation. The same company has recently introduced a slightly larger seven metres skiff with a mechanized monofilament longline drum and associated gear.

Other building design developments include:

Generally these initiatives have improved safety as the designs are mostly good. One difficulty is that boatbuilders with little experience are producing some dangerous boats, especially small skiffs and plywood single outrigger canoes.

Another problem is with the surveyors selected by the Marine Division. Although the people appointed may have some appropriate experience, they may not be fully qualified. This can result in the surveyors being mainly interested in the vessel safety equipment, rather than the more complex issues of vessel design or quality of workmanship.

With respect to the use of sail, this practice is more prevalent today in Kiribati than in any other Pacific Island country. In addition to the traditional sailing canoe, the outer islands have continued to utilize sail on the introduced FAO-designed vessels to reduce operating costs; sometimes there is no alternative due to lack of availability of fuel. Attempts at introducing emergency sail rigs have not been especially successful.

With respect to naval architecture work, there is a need to introduce criteria for proper construction. These specifications should be easy for an inspecting officer to understand and follow. Scantlings should be specified for various sized vessels, along with the minimum amount of safety equipment for each size category of vessel.

9.7 Observations

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

Some sea safety lessons-learned in Kiribati:

[14] Most of the information in this section was kindly provided by Mike Savins, a Tarawa-based boatbuilder, fish processor, and consultant.

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