May 15, 2021 Last Updated 6:06 PM, May 14, 2021

An innovative maritime project is improving the safety and efficiency of domestic maritime services, spurring rural development in Solomon Islands and it is shaping up to be a model for similar projects in the Pacific region as Sally Shute-Trembath* reports.

It is 7:30 p.m. and Point Cruz Wharf is surrounded by a sea of people carrying building materials, bags of clothes, and canned goods, waiting to board the M.V. Invader II, a ship bound for Avu Avu on the southern side of Guadalcanal—the main island of the Solomon Islands. “If the weather is kind, it will take four days to get to Avu Avu Port, with eight stops along the way,” says Robert Smith Koveke, captain of the M.V. Invader II. Avu Avu is remote, and the route would not be financially viable without government help—financed in part by a grant from ADB (Asian Development Bank). For passenger Jim Kalia—a frequent traveller on the Invader II, and a science teacher at Avu Avu Secondary School—the new shipping service means considerable financial savings. He used to fly to Honiara, the capital, to go to the market, do his banking, or see a doctor, but the airfare cost $SB800 ($110)—four times the price of the boat fare.

Bringing remote communities together: The country’s nearly 1,000 islands have always had trouble staying physically connected with the capital, Honiara, especially the outer islands. This has left many of the country’s remote islands with limited access to goods, social services, or markets for their produce.

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The tragic stories behind the shipping disaster

The Rabaul Queen was a vessel doomed to die. When it finally turned turtle, it took more than 200 people—mostly children and students —down with it, mostly trapped in overcrowded cabins, down to the 3,000-metre depths where it now lies. Its story and that of the ships that sail between Papua New Guinea’s hundreds of islands, tell much about the sorry state of the nation—of bright hopes dashed, of good intentions and poor implementation, of apparent venality.

But the openness and persistence of the inquiry into the sinking also hint at the possibility—held out yet again by the elections this month—of better prospects for the battered country of 7 million. Dozens of survivors and others affected by the tragedy have been testifying at a dramatic and horrifying commission of inquiry—chaired by Australian judge Warwick Andrew—into Papua New Guinea’s worst peace time disaster, except for earthquakes and tsunamis.

The Rabaul Queen, buffeted by heavy seas and high winds, capsized and sank shortly after 5am on February 2, 17 kilometres off Finschhafen in the Morobe province, near Lae. The number who drowned is still not precisely known, because the total number of passengers on the boat remains uncertain—but those already certified, place the disaster as even worse in such terms than Australia’s bush fires in Victoria on Black Saturday in 2009, and the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, last year. Children under three did not need tickets, so it remains difficult to be certain about how many such children drowned.

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Priority goes to companies investing locally

The region’s leading tuna management control authority in the Pacific believes the latest move by the Solomon Islands to give priority to fishing companies that invest in the country would influence investment and offer more employment for locals. Director of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement Secretariat Dr Transform Aqorau lauded the Solomon Islands’ new longline licensing policy. With the new policy, an extra 500 jobs will be created in Noro as the licences will enable Soltai to increase its production of tuna products. Terms of the licences require that fish caught in the Solomon Islands’ EEZ should be unloaded and processed in Solomon Islands, thereby increasing employment through processing and handling of the fish. Fish landed in Solomon Islands will be exported thereby substantially increasing the country’s foreign exchange earnings and improving its balance of payments. The new licensing policy also allows for boats to unload their Solomon Islands catch outside of Solomon Islands in 2012, subject to payment by the fishing boat of a penalty. Not only will this fish not be available for processing in Solomon Islands, it will not be available for inspection by officials from Solomon Islands Ministry of Fishing and Marine Resources who are responsible for surveillance of the fishery and control of the catch.

Part of the rationale for the change in policy was to increase the effectiveness of Solomon Islands control of their fisheries. It is expected that boats which maximise their Solomon Islands landings will have priority in future licensing periods. Tri Marine’s National Fisheries Developments Limited has been granted 50 longline licenses in support of Soltai’s processing requirements. Soltai and NFD currently employ over 1,000 Solomon Islanders. The new licensing policy will allow Soltai to add a second shift to its processing operations, resulting in approximately 500 new jobs, and a significant increase in its exports of processed fish.

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Bigger ships, bigger risks

Is the Pacific prepared?

On January 13, 2012, the world witnessed one of the worst cruise ship disasters in decades. Costa Concordia, the largest Italian cruise ship in history at the time of her launch in 2006, ran aground and capsized off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio in Italy. Twenty five people are known to have died, 64 others were injured and seven are missing. The tragic case of Costa Concordia brought to the fore important lessons for the cruise ship industry—an industry that has thrived year after year, even maintaining its lucky streak in 2012 with a forecast of over 17 million passengers. For the Pacific, it raises the grave question of whether the region is prepared for a disaster of this magnitude should it happen in our waters. While Pacific Islands governments clearly benefit from the cruise industry as millions of dollars get injected into national economies, a trend that is worrying authorities is an increase in the size of ships that are calling at small Pacific Islands ports. Bigger ships come with bigger risks. Pacific Transport Ministers have made the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) responsible for coordinating regional transport activities. Part of this role is improving maritime safety and security. SPC is helping Pacific Islands countries and territories take stock of this growing industry and is supporting the development of disaster response plans that are appropriate for these large vessels.

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ADB/NZ help out Vanuatu

Domestic shipping services in many Pacific islands countries are far from adequate.Domestic shipping services in many Pacific islands countries are far from adequate. While each island nation is unique, their people share common challenges related to their small size, narrow economies of scale, vulnerability and geographic isolation. Certainly one of the biggest challenges faced by the region is how to provide reliable, frequent inter-island shipping services.

Due to inadequate inter-island shipping services, people in remote and poor parts of the region remain cut off from access to markets, education and health services. Inter-island shipping services are generally operated by governments or by small, independent shipping companies. Service schedules are often poorly maintained and it is not uncommon for services to be cancelled at short notice or suspended for long periods of time.

This makes it very difficult for rural producers to get their commodities to markets or for people to access social services like health and education. With its population of about 240,000 scattered across 60 islands, Vanuatu, like much of the Pacific, is heavily dependent on agriculture with most of the production occurring in remote, rural areas without access to suitable maritime infrastructure.

Wharves and jetties in some areas are in such poor conditions that ships cannot berth, forcing cargoes to be offloaded into small boats and causing delays and safety issues while cargoes are transported onshore. Realising that ports and jetties need to be upgraded, and safe, reliable, regular shipping services are needed to support trade, economic growth and development in Vanuatu, the government asked for assistance.

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