An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
I HAVE recently returned from a month’s wonderful and stress-free break during which I spent a week with mom, dad and relatives at Tarawai Island.
It was a relief breathing the fresh ocean breeze free of exhaust fumes and other alien pollutants. Nevertheless, things were not as they were years ago.
Like many other island and coastal people, Tarawai islanders have a strong connection with the sea, the source of their livelihood for eons. Not to mention the sea as their only mode of transport and trade to the shores of Dagua and the far-away east-coast of Aitape.
Recently people have come to realise that fish numbers are declining and that there are no seagulls hovering over tuna hotspots.
Tarawai Island councillor Bonny Waihing told me that continuous close observation showed that these were the outcomes of inappropriate fishing methods by a tuna fishing company in the provincial capital, Wewak.
But it is not only Tarawai islanders who are affected. People from other of outlying islands are now concerned their marine food supply is threatened as affirmed by their councillors at a recent gathering in Wewak.
Councillor Waihing said fishing vessels are stripping the ocean of tuna.
“The island’s customary waters are now infested with huge nets that seem to take out everything overnight,” he said.
“Since 2009 we observed fishing vessels coming too close to our shores. Right now it seems our sea is dead.”
Youths who regularly come in contact with the fishing vessels and their nets told me the nets are 40 meters in length and consist of eight lines.
Councillor Waihing also claims shark fins are harvested illegally as was evident by a number of dead sharks spotted in customary waters.
He said he understands the company is operating under a government fishing license, however it would be of more benefit to the islanders if the fishing was restricted to three nautical miles offshore, outside customary waters.
“We don’t want them to cease operations but to leave our waters, which are the source of our livelihood,” said Councillor Waihing.
He said it is disappointing that islanders were promised spin-off benefits from the company and the provincial government but have received nothing.
Councillor Waihing and other leaders from the islands and the coastal villages have now petitioned the Minister for Trade, Commerce and Industry, Richard Maru, to follow up on the company’s operations and the unreceived benefits.
He said 27 local level governments within the province pledged support for the petition.
“It’s a big issue concerning the Wewak islands and coastal villages and we are happy to have support even from people inland,” he said.
Councillor Waihing challenged provincial and national leaders to fully enforce maritime laws so ordinary islanders and people living along the coast can benefit sustainably from the sea.
It is to be hoped that, now the issue has been brought to the media, relevant authorities and will have something constructive to say.
It has been almost four years since I last visited Tarawai and, despite the increasing number of semi-permanent buildings, small sea craft and the introduction of chain saws, not much has changed.
People from Tarawai and fellow islanders from Vokeo, in the far north-east rely, continue to rely heavily on the sea.
Ignoring their call would seem to be an act of negligence.