Rescues of Pacific Islanders drifting at sea by tuna vessels / by Francisco Blaha

In my last post I quoted a story form the FFA Trade Bulletin, so here is other that I liked, as I'm working at the moment on a safety at sea chapter, for an illustrated manual for small scale fisherman.

more than fish sometimes

more than fish sometimes

An integral part of the life of many Pacific islanders has for years included offshore fishing expeditions and inter-island voyages. In recent years, these trips are usually undertaken on outboard-powered skiffs. For a variety of reasons - engine failure, lack of tools or spare parts, unanticipated bad weather, or poor planning and boating skills, these activities sometimes result in the participants adrift with no ability to return to land on their own.

Over the years, the international tuna fishing fleet in the WCPO has rescued numerous islanders that otherwise would likely never have been found. Occasionally the rescues are publicized in the media, but it is believed that many more may go unpublicized. This may be especially true for those islands with poor communication with the outside world, or countries without an active news media.

A review of 38 news stories published during the period 1998-2014 describing incidents in just six countries: PNG, FSM, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, and Solomon Islands, shows that a total of 148 Pacific islanders from those countries were rescued by tuna vessels in the WCPO. Others, but not nearly as many, were identified as rescued by tankers, freighters and the like.

Some stories do not identify the name or type of fishing vessel, while others are very specific and sometimes include interviews with the drifters and/or fishing vessel captains. One US purse seine captain whose vessel had rescued three fishermen from Kiribati undertook extensive interviews with those rescued to learn their survival story and eventually published a book in 2012 describing their 87-day experience.21

Purse seiners are more likely to come across drifters, mainly as a result of their use of helicopters, high powered binoculars and other tools in their search for fish. During the period surveyed just 11 drifters (0.8 percent) were identified as rescued by longliners while 69 (47 percent) were found by purse seiners. But if drifters are not in the areas generally fished by purse seiners their chance of discovery by those vessels is likely diminished. The increased use of FADs could enhance survival chances of those who find these devices during their drift, although there is no guarantee.

There have also been some survivors’ accounts of being ignored by fishing vessels while drifting. In one case, a politician from Chuuk lost with his wife on an inter-island voyage encountered a freighter that came very close to their vessel and then ignored their plight. He had the presence of mind to memorize the call sign on the side of the vessel and report to authorities after his rescue 29 days later. FSM officials identified the vessel (a Chinese fish carrier involved in transshipment) and it was subsequently arrested by an FSM patrol boat and taken to Pohnpei for prosecution under FSM law that requires the rendering of assistance to persons in distress within the FSM EEZ.

The efforts of all tuna fishermen who rescue drifters are commendable, but one in particular deserves special mention. Taiwanese Captain Ming-Chuan Lu serving on the US-flag American Victory rescued drifters in 2012 and returned them to Majuro. This was the third group of I-Kiribati drifters that Captain Lu had rescued since 2007.