On Wednesday 15 June 2011, seven traditional double-hulled vaka (sailing canoes) arrived safely in the warm harbours of the Big Island of Hawaii after 59 days of sailing some 6,500 nautical miles from Aotearoa (New Zealand) via Tahiti and the Marquesas. These Pacific Voyagers bring messages of urgency regarding the plight of the ocean and the need to take strong measures to reduce species loss, maintain fish stocks and minimise impacts of ocean acidification.
Even as we recognise the great efforts of these 120 individuals, we at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) wish to also pay tribute to all seafarers everywhere, in recognition of International Day of the Seafarer, being observed on 25 June.
International Day of the Seafarer, sponsored by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), has been set aside in honour of the 1.5million individuals who have made seafaring their livelihood. According to the IMO, 90% of the world's trade is conducted via shipping. In the Pacific there are 11 maritime training institutes producing hundreds of seafarers every year. Although the number of Pacific island seafarers may be small in the global context, their employment on foreign-flag vessels contributes significant economic benefits to small island nations such as Kiribati and Tuvalu. Many of these seafarers spend significant portions of their lives at sea, leaving behind loved ones and often working in extremely difficult circumstances.
Technology, even on a traditional voyaging vessel, allows today's seafarer access to the internet, voice calls and photo streaming. Global positioning systems provide direction in place of stars and sextants and one is seldom without some contact with land.
But the life of the seafarer continues to be a lonely and, at times, dangerous one. The only human contact is with fellow members of the crew. Out there on the unpredictable ocean, the individual is vulnerable, not only to the forces of nature but, at times to the darker side of human nature. The IMO, in partnership with the International Labour Organisation, is working to ensure that seafarers have the right to working conditions equitable with people on shore. International Day of the Seafarer is an opportunity to raise awareness on such issues.
It is also an opportunity to remind us of the role of the seafarer as stewards of the ocean. Ships have the potential to contribute to great swathes of pollution in the ocean – garbage, sewage, ballast water and oil could all easily make their way into the ocean with huge negative consequences for marine species and the economies and health of our small islands. Seafarers must adhere to conventions and protocols established to guide good practice in waste disposal and dealing with crises resulting in oil spills.
This 25 June, we take the opportunity to say thank to those among the world's seafarers who, like the Pacific Voyagers, have committed to protecting the ocean. We say thank you for respecting our marine creatures, thank you for using alternative sources of waste disposal, thank you for being good ambassadors for the ocean.
We urge all users of the ocean to practice good stewardship of this very special part of our Pacific heritage.