OP-ED: NGO Pacific Dialogue on Pacific Seafarers

Opinion Piece

4th July 2019

Suva, Fiji. The Fijian partner to Human Rights at Sea, the NGO Pacific Dialogue, released an OP-ED for the occasion of the 2019 ‘Day of the Seafarer’ which is reproduced for an increased awareness of the history, issues and work being carried out in the Pacific by seafarers which is not always know about outside of the region.

Pacific Dialogue is a non-government organisation, which for the past few years has been supporting the rights of crew on fishing vessels in the region and advocating for improved working conditions of all crew and their families in the Pacific tuna fishery.

Our advocacy has reached the Forum Fisheries Ministers who are meeting this week.

In this, the last week of June, the world celebrates seafarers.

The Pacific is the largest ocean on our planet, and the people here and in neighbouring countries depend on this ocean to an enormous extent – for transport of goods, supply of services, resources, weather, food – and enjoyment. Ships and the people who steer and manage them are a vital part of our nations’ economies.

It is appropriate therefore, that we celebrate seafarers. But what are they? Based on several website searches, a seafarer is a person who regularly travels by sea; a sailor; a person who is engaged in the working of a vessel at sea and the vessel’s operation, activities, maintenance and provisioning. Seafarers also can be persons who perform repair and maintenance work on ships, special ship personnel who have been engaged to work at sea on board a ship, as well as cleaning and catering personnel.

Seafarers come in many shapes and sizes therefore. The term encompasses people working on merchant and navy vessels, fishing vessels, cruise ships (and their passengers). In fact, on all manner of vessels.

Seafarers who operate vessels and who ensure safe passage must complete accreditation courses at maritime training institutions. As well as courses in sea safety and security, deckhand, watch-keeping, fire-fighting, sea survival, bosun, navigational training, first aid, leading to masters of vessels at various levels; there are training courses also for marine engineers. Among the Pacific Islands Forum nations, there are training institutions in Kiribati, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. It is ‘a natural’ that Pacific Islanders are keen to become trained seafarers because for them the vast Pacific is embraced as a part of their shared living: simply a highway upon which to travel.

An earlier kind of training institution peculiar to the Pacific barely now exists. The training of navigators for the huge double-hulled voyaging canoes (drua, lakatoi, pahi (orpai), vaka, paurua, faulua, proa, …) with their characteristic clawed sails which once carried men, women, and provisions across the Pacific now is carried out in abbreviated form in just a few pockets of the Pacific, including Hawaii, Yap, and the Santa Cruz Islands. The recorded stories of the extent of the voyaging are quite several: suffice to say that in the 1770s, Captain Cook recorded that Tongans knew islands in Kiribati (about three thousand kilometres away) and that Tahitians knew of Rotuma, another three thousand kilometres away [Islands, 1997-8]. And as is reasonably-well confirmed, voyagers from the Cook Islands and Tuamotus settled New Zealand, Polynesians settled Rennell and Bellona islands in the west of the Solomon Islands chain (and many spaces in-between including much of coastal Fiji), each season Papuans sailed west on their huge lakatoisto trade with the peoples of the Gulf of Papua, and without the roving sea gypsies, the Lasakau, Bau Island of Fiji would never have been as powerful as it became.

It is difficult to imagine the enormity and capacity of these voyaging canoes which could carry 40-50 people plus provisions, and had an average speed of 160-240 kilometres a day (We, the Navigators, 1994); the combined Tongan and Fijian fleet at the 1855 Battle of Kaba comprised more than three thousand men on 145 large canoes (A history of Fiji, 2001). And the skills of the navigators which enabled the outward and return voyages still cause puzzle to Westerners.

Seafarers indeed! Yet where are they today?

Pacific seafarers are to be found on every kind of vessel, from large merchant and naval vessels to inter-island ferries, fishing and coastal craft. Many islanders occupy senior positions, even as masters.

But many do not. Mr Able Seaman (SPC Fisheries Newsletter #133, 2010) explains the situation of Pacific Islanders crewing foreign fishing vessels: the Islanders feel as if they are actually fishing in foreign waters, not their own Pacific Island waters because (he says) foreigners are labouring Pacific Islander crews almost to slavery in their own backyard. Mr Seaman asks which of the Pacific politicians has had the initiative to check on the working environment, treatment, and salary of their countrymen who risk their lives for very little money to be able to feed their families and loved ones back home.

‘There are many Pacific Islanders who have worked 15 years or more on purse seiners and longliners, moving from boat to boat developing skills to become very able seamen but who still labour as deckhands, the lowest rank onboard vessels, without promotion or increase in salary simply because the foreigners use rank to dominate Pacific Island crew. It is unique to find a Pacific Islander that ranks over a foreigner. … being crew onboard foreign fishing vessels is a difficult lifestyle, … next to slavery. All we want is to work and provide for our families the best way we can; however, to risk our lives for meagre wages is not what we had in mind.’

Regrettably, the conditions of crew – seafarers – on vessels fishing our Pacific waters have changed little in the years since Mr Seaman’s report. Conditions on many foreign longline vessels are difficult at best; injuries and even deaths are not uncommon. ‘’Anything can happen at sea” mused our Rotuman friend, Gerry Semisi, “and no-one would know what really happened”.

Pacific Islanders will always be seafarers but they have a right to be safe and respected when they are working and travelling on all and any vessel. Let us as a Pacific community, put our best foot forward to ensure those ‘small’ criteria are met.

And please give a grand ‘Heigh-ho’ and three cheers in celebration of our seafarers!”





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