The Seaka II pioneers
When the ‘Seaka Pirates’ all-female deck crew cast off on their first fishing trip on a tuna longline vessel last month, they were fulfilling the ambitions of a program devised by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), Fiji Maritime Academy and Fijian fishing company SeaQuest Fiji to get more women working on boats in the important industry.
While many of the crew members had already started to accrue their hours at sea prior to the pandemic, the Seaka II crew also included 22-year-old mother, Viviana Bogitini, who was on her maiden voyage.
Standing alongside the vessel before leaving Suva, Viviana talked about how excited she was about the fishing trip.
And on her return? Bogitini said at first it was a bit challenging, “for the first three days I was feeling a bit sick,” she confessed. But once she got her sea legs, “I really liked it, it was fun.” She learnt how to handle fish, gaff fish and other tasks. While she missed home, especially her two-year old, she’s determined to continue. “I’m going to study again and carry on.”
FFA Director General, Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen said the June voyage was a world-first, and that the women on this crew were pioneers, charting a new direction for the Pacific and the world by challenging the status quo.
FFA and its local partners intends to progressively roll out the program in other Pacific countries.
“The research tells us that most women’s jobs in Pacific fisheries are in processing (small scale and commercial) and marketing for the domestic market. Women working on fishing vessels are exceedingly rare,” said Dr Tupou-Roosen.
“There are a multitude of reasons why we don’t see women on fishing vessels from socio-cultural beliefs, family obligations, lack of skills and experience to attitudes to what roles women can play.
“The uphill battle these women have faced to be on this vessel today is a testament to their strength, determination and commitment to their training. They are an inspiration for us and for generations to come.”
Seaka II Chief Officer, Joana Vakaucautadra can relate to these challenges. She said not so long ago she was working unhappily in an office, unable to find a position on a boat, despite her qualifications.
“I think it was because some thought we were weak. Apart from the fact that the fishing boats were not equipped for female crew. There was also reservation that I will not be able to hack it onboard.”
Vakaucautadra’s love of the sea was born during her first visit to her maternal village on Vanua Levu. Still a child, she was the only one in her family unaffected by the swaying of the ship and was tasked with bringing food to the rest of her family. Eventually she found her way to the ship’s wheelhouse, “where I watched the ship captain and crew members work. I was fascinated and I made up my mind. I was going to work on ships.”
Nine years ago, Joana had her first crew position on the ship. “I was green. I was briefed about all the things that could go wrong and reminded that there were no facilities for women on board. Of course, the trip was not easy, working on longline vessels is hard, but I loved it. and I’m happy that today seven women are joining me on a longline fishing vessel, which 10 years ago would have been impossible.”
The crew dubbed themselves the Seaka Pirates, and Vakaucautadra relayed the story of Irish pirate queen, Grace O’Malley, “who rebelled against her father to be able to sail in his vessel. She eventually took over the father’s business and became more powerful. Grace was seen as a rebel by the English, and was called many things. But above all this, she was a woman who tested the norm and was one of the first women in early history who fought for gender equality. I hope that when we set sail today, the Seaka pirates inspire young girls to reach their dreams. Even if it seems so impossible or hard,” Vakaucautadra said.
Bosun Sereana Cakacaka started to rack up her hours at sea prior to COVID. Standing in the fish packing area, where the big tuna she and her crewmates had caught was being wrapped and iced, she told Islands Business that the only difference she observed on this trip was in terms of lifting the fish.
“It was fun because all of us came through in the same class [at the Fiji Maritime Academy],” she said. Her advice to other women considering a career at sea: “nothing is impossible, come and join in.”
SeaQuest CEO, Brett Haywood called the event a personal celebration of a 25-year-old vision born when he first saw a Fijian woman crewing a fishing vessel out of Pago Pago, American Samoa. The woman was on board the ‘Tabu Soro’, or ‘never give up’ in the i-Taukei language.
“The rarity of seeing a female crew member really struck home at the time. I was so inspired by this Fijian woman’s commitment, skill, tenacity. I remember thinking that this should not be rare. I decided at that moment to never give up on one day seeing an all-female crew on board my vessel.”
He hopes it will be the beginning of an industry wide shift, urging his counterparts to ‘think differently.’
“I would suggest all the challenges, and there have been many; the crew, the accommodation, the facilities on board, should not be an excuse. Think differently. Think about how we can open up our employment to the other half of the population. I think it’s good not only for employment but also for companies to reshape their thinking. It’s a journey for me but I hope this is a catalyst to change the landscape of the employment in the maritime sector.”
The ‘Seaka Pirates’ spent two weeks at sea after leaving June 16. They returned for a week’s home leave, then returned to sea for a second trip. For those who persist, their training over the next six months will include frequent trips, where they will become familiar with the vessel, undergo safety training, learn longline fishing techniques and how to handle the catch to maximize the quality.
“This is to attain levels of catch and efficiency that can be expected of an experienced commercial longline group. This period of upskilling sea time and practice practical experience has also been supported by the FFA,” said Haywood.
“We feel strongly that by the end of this intensive training and support, we will have a confident skilled successful cohort of professional fishing professionals. This group of women make a long-term contribution to their communities, communities that would that we would all be aware, has been terribly impacted by the recent tough times.”
He encouraged other women contemplating a career on the sea to “just do it.”
“Do it. Don’t give up. Never give up. No matter whether you have a qualification or not, there’s an opportunity for you in the Fiji fishing industry. My hope is that our FFA/SeaQuest initiative will inspire anyone that has a penchant for the sea, its lifestyle, the hard work, and also the moments of great beauty and fulfilment on the sea to give it a go. There are many opportunities for advancement with industry support for those that show commitment. I hope this initiative encourages a new generation of seafarers to advance their own lives, communities, and Fiji as a whole.”