Where fishermen are lost and found more often than anywhere else
Almost every other week in Kiribati one would hear that some fishermen are reported missing and their families turn to the government for help. The Marine Department immediately collect as much information as possible about the incident, determine where possible the most likely position of the boat, design the search and rescue operation and issue directions to the various people and authorities in the execution of the search and rescue operation.
The frequency with which these incidents occurred was very low in the 1980s, as low as a few in a year but the influx of many imported fishing boats coupled with the notable rise in the production of locally made boats is responsible for the high rate of fishermen getting lost at sea. Successive governments since Independence have failed to improve the situation and the search and rescue bill continue to rise from year to year not only on the part of the Kiribati government but also on the part of friendly governments such as Australia that provided one patrol boat for Kiribati and New Zealand that reserves a budget not only to assist in the regular monitoring and surveillance of Kiribati EEZ against illegal fishing activities of poachers but also in the search and rescue efforts of Kiribati’s Marine Division.
Now and again one would find a Royal New Zealand Air Force plane land at the Bonriki International Airport, Kiribati’s main gateway to the world with a crew ready to fly over the Kiribati and nearby waters in search of some missing fishermen. These soldiers are always regarded by the local people particularly those who had been rescued and saved through the timely intervention of the NZ Air Force, as much more than good Samaritans. As a result, the numbers found and saved have increased while the numbers not found nor saved through the Kiribati Marine ‘s search and rescue operation have remained low over the years.
However, it is pleasing to note that almost all those not found nor saved by the search and rescue operation soon manage to show the unique and natural durability and skill of the Kiribati men when it comes to handling the sea as confirmed in the Guiness Book of Record on the longest drift at sea being two men from Nikunau Island in the Southern Gilberts who in 1992 drifted for 177 days before they landed in the eastern end of Samoa. This is hardly surprising given the natural closeness between Kiribati people and the sea. In a documentary film about Kiribati produced in the 1960s “Sailing in the Trade Winds” the people of Kiribati were aptly referred to as “marine amphibians” and this is quite true in many respects.
Watching the children getting psyched up with great fun and excitement whenever the king tides and waves take over parts of the coastal areas or villages. There is no sense of fear at all. They all rush forward to welcome the intruder, they grab it with their arms and legs, they dive into it, they throw it up into the air and sing songs to it.
This natural affinity for the sea in the chemistry of the Kiribati people has contributed to the failure of government’s numerous awareness programms to alert people about the dangers, risks and costs associated with the sea and the need for every fisherman to have certain safety gears and equipments on their boats before setting out to sea. They are never serious enough about such risks. Even when they can afford to buy a GPS or E Bep’s or other safety type instruments, they would rather spend their money on other things. This inner drive for adventure mixed with a sea loving attitude in the minds of the I-Kiribati men does contribute to some extent to the ongoing failure of national efforts to effectively control the number of fishermen getting lost at sea. This mind set has to be treated first before other measures such as provision of affordable types of search and rescue facilities and equipments and the making and enforcement of rules, can be put in place.