A WATCHING BRIEF

Tucked away in the corner of an otherwise nondescript building in Paray bay in Port Vila is an office that quietly buzzes with activity. Fisheries Compliance Manager William Naviti and his team operate a 24/7/365 monitoring service that tracks all fishing vessel activity in Vanuatu’s waters, as well as keeping tabs on Vanuatu-flagged fishing boats wherever they are on the planet.

In 2014, approximately 50 long-liner vessels caught an estimated 6,636 tonnes of tuna and related by-catch, generating nearly 800 million vatu in value, including roughly 90 million vatu in government revenue.

Albacore represents the lion’s share of the catch, over 70% in all. Another 15% is Yellowfin tuna, with a further 2% or so belonging to Bigeye. The remainder is by-catch—game fish species whose feeding habits are similar to tuna.

All fishing vessels licensed to operate in Vanuatu’s Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, are required to carry radio beacons which send a constant signal to a satellite-based system that tracks where they are as well as what they’re doing.

Sophisticated logic can differentiate between a ship cruising to its chosen fishing grounds, and one that is actively fishing. It can spot when two ships meet and if they attempt to transfer catch, crew or contraband.

The system, developed by the Forum Fisheries Agency, is an international tracking service. This is critical, because it means that dodgy operations can no longer go jurisdiction-hopping—jumping from one country to another one step ahead of enforcement agencies.

A 50-inch high definition display shows every vessel in or near Vanuatu’s waters, and a coloured flag indicates their status. Each vessel’s path over the last 24 hours is run in a loop, with current position constantly updated. The result image is of a cloud of tiny green markers repeatedly zipping north and south like dragonflies across a pond.

In their midst, a couple of yellow-flagged vessels are visible. These are ships that are noteworthy for any reason: they’ve recently approached other vessels, or their license status is unverified, or similar. Not a problem necessarily, but worth watching.

On top of all this float one or two icons glaring angry red. One such has an outstanding license infraction in Solomon Islands. Another is a false alarm; the FFA hasn’t received the ship’s license information yet due to delays on the Vanuatu side of things, so it thinks the ship is operating illegally.

The alert in this case is unneeded, but it’s a good example of how closely we are able to watch those who take fish from our waters. There have been a number of fines laid in the last year, mostly brought about by failures to report activity.

Fisheries staff declined to discuss specifics, but confirmed that there have also been successful prosecutions in recent years. Continue reading

Bigger Fish to Fry

The Sino-Van Fisheries Ltd fish sorting plant in Blacksand has drawn the ire of countless local residents. Many of the fears expressed are ungrounded in fact.

Will it stink? Yes. Will it destroy the foreshore ecology from Blacksand to Devil’s Point? Not even in the worst-case scenario. Will it draw sharks? No. Will long-liners drag their anchors across the international internet cable? No. Will innumerable decrepit long-liners crowd Vila Bay? No. Will these vessels pollute the bay? Yes, but no worse than cruise ships and domestic transports already do.

None of that is to say that we shouldn’t be worried. We just need to draw a clear line between outright NIMBY-ism and legitimate concern.

The Daily Post toured the fish plant last week and spoke at length with company officials. The parent company, CNFC Overseas Fishery Co. Ltd, which holds a 51% controlling interest in the joint venture, operates a fleet of 40 long-liner ships in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands territorial waters. So far, they have been offloading in Suva.

A typical long-liner returns to port to offload every 1.5 – 2 months. Turn-around time in port is seldom more than 48 hours. At current levels of operation, this would mean about 320 fishing boat arrivals in Port Vila every year. We would rarely see more than four vessels in harbour at any time. The average number would be one or two.

A company spokesman said that captains would simply extend their cruise if there were a backlog in port. Continue reading

Aside

We stand with Florence

I don’t always like my job, but I always love it. There are times when relating the news of the day is fraught with tension, and unpleasant in the extreme. But as long as we publish without fear or favour, I can reconcile myself to the stress.

But every now and then, you get a story of real courage and—yes, I’ll say it—heroism like that of Florence Lengkon. Her courage has catalysed a response that gives me hope for this country. Not only have people stood with her in opposing the bullying tactics of a small number of out-of-control people, but they’ve also united in their opposition to all violence against women.

This morning, someone posted a photo of Florence spontaneously helping another victim of violence. The incident took place months ago, and she never expected any recognition or reward; she was just doing what she knew to be the right thing.

People are right to be inspired by her example. If everyone had her courage and her kindness, the world would be a much better place. The Daily Post is proud to tell her story. I’m proud. We stand with Florence.

The Bullying Stops Now

This sh*t has to stop.’

Such intemperate language rarely appears in these pages, but in this particular case, it’s a bit of an understatement. These were spoken by the person who informed us of the reported abduction down at the seafront yesterday.

Florence Lengkon has bravely stood up against what appears to be a clear case of mafia-like violence and intimidation, and we stand with her. Her story, which appears in today’s newspaper, is far, far too common.

We can show compassion for the difficult circumstances, agree that nuance is required to fully understand the tensions and solutions to a complex question of economic and social justice. We can admit there are good reasons people are angry.

But first, we have to stop threatening and beating people.

It is utterly, criminally reprehensible for any man—for any reason—to strike any woman, let alone the slip of a girl who features in the headlines today.

And for what? Because she called some taxi and bus drivers ‘big headed’ and ‘unprofessional’.

Words are simply not sufficient to describe how despicable, how cowardly and how damaging this kind of behaviour is. Such actions bring shame to the nation.

What Ms Lengkon described to us yesterday was unacceptable in any society, under any circumstances. Just as we did with corruption in politics, the perpetrators must be found and made to face the consequences.

There’s no point waiting for the police. This bullying has to stop now. And the way it stops is for people to stand together. Continue reading

Getting off the grey list

In 1989 the G-7 group of countries decided it was time to act together to address the increasingly serious problem of money laundering. They created what became known as the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering, or FATF. Prompted as they were by the extraordinary boom in illicit cash brought about by America’s love affair with cocaine, the measures weren’t taken particularly seriously by tiny tax-haven nations such as Vanuatu.

Then came September 11th, 2001. What had been seen as a first-world problem suddenly became a global concern. No longer just a pastime for drug lords and tax cheats, money laundering was identified by the USA as a prime source of financing for terrorism. In the months immediately after the terror attacks on New York, a series of measures were brought into play that made it clear that the world was going to play along to the anti-money laundering tune.

In 2002, Vanuatu was faced with a choice. It could either clean up its act, or it could lose the ability to trade in US dollars. The consequences of failure were dire, to say the least. Within months, a number of offices with dozens of nameplates on their door disappeared.

In fairly short order, Vanuatu drafted a legislative and law enforcement framework that quelled the international community’s worst fears, and got the country moved from the infamous grey list of ‘non-compliant and uncooperative jurisdictions’. In fact, Vanuatu went above and beyond the call of duty, and drafted a regime that would prove onerous actually to implement.

This decision would come back to haunt the country. Continue reading

Learning to Govern Again

What does a culture of corruption actually look like? Vanuatu.

It’s often difficult to see exactly where the rot sets in. The pressure of corruption is often quiet and always insidious. It impacts on public institutions, on their ability to manage themselves, to plan and to perform useful work.

Corruption creates a culture of impunity. Bad deeds go unpunished; good deeds and hard work go unrewarded. Each is as dangerous as the other.

2015 will almost certainly go down in the history books as Vanuatu’s annus horribilis, a year so bad we hope it will never be repeated. Between the cyclone, the drought, the collapse of government and the failure of critical infrastructure, it’s hard to see even a glimmer of light.

But we need to understand that it was a long time coming. Arguably, it all began in the days immediately after Walter Lini’s ouster, when the deposed leader and his confreres stripped the government offices bare before their departure.

Over the years, Vanuatu’s leaders have developed and defined a style of government that may have worked on the village and family level, but has condemned the country to failure. Continue reading

Cooking the Goose

It‘s easy to cast aspersions at the people who stood down on the wharf road yesterday and threw stones at a bus full of visitors. That kind of behaviour is unacceptable under any circumstances. No amount of frustration can justify such violence and intimidation.

The costs of such behaviour are difficult to calculate, too. There’s the immediate loss of approximately 5 million vatu daily in tours and activities that get booked by passengers before they arrive. There’s the knock-on benefits derived from staff income being spent closer to home, including bus and taxi fares.

Then there are the indirect costs. The lost fares for those very drivers whose frustrations have boiled over. The opportunity cost to the countless shops, handicraft vendors and duty free suppliers in and around town. The shifting perception of cruise operators, which might lead them to question their significant investment in Vanuatu as a destination.

Goodwill is priceless, and if we fritter that away simply because we can’t manage a single high-traffic location, then we really have to ask ourselves some basic questions about the direction this country is going in. Continue reading

Strengthen the Electoral Commission

The members of the Vanuatu Electoral Commission managed a small miracle when they wrangled this snap election to a mostly successful conclusion. Were it not for the valiant efforts of the Commission members and the staff of the Electoral Office, things could easily have gone wildly awry.

We cannot afford to let this happen again. To do so would be flirting with disaster.

The Electoral Commission is not a beast that wakes every four years, runs a national election and then sleeps again. Far from it. There are municipal and provincial elections to be run, there is the electoral roll to be managed, there is the review of electoral districts and voting processes to be considered, and last but certainly not least, there is the long-delayed research into future voting procedures to correct the problems that inevitably arise during elections.

The Electoral Commission and the Principal Electoral Officer have done well—better than well, actually—in the face of chronic staff and budget shortfalls. But that’s only because of the stalwart, hard-working and principled people who fill the ranks.

There is no substitute for having the right people in the right positions, but their mandate and their abilities can be enhanced by taking a few simple measures. Continue reading

The Price of Politics

Throughout Vanuatu and across the region, an outcry has arisen over our inability to keep international air travel safe. The prospect we face now—the possibility of only one remaining carrier willing to land at all, and only when the airstrip has been swept clean of debris—is a national disgrace.

It’s scandalous, too. Even knowing that our airstrip is more than half a decade past its use-by date, some were still willing to treat the airport upgrade as nothing more than a political football. Looking back over the past months, it’s hard to see if concern for traveler safety ever came into the picture.

It didn’t have to be this way. In August of 2014, the Bauerfield Airport Rehabilitation Committee, or BARC, was struck with a mandate to compile and detail the known issues concerning the airport, and to recommend a way forward.

A March 2015 report on the status of the airport, presented to the National Trade Development Committee by the Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office stated: “The runway was last resurfaced in 2000 with an estimated design life of between 8 to 10 years…. The runway pavement, the stop areas and thresholds are currently deteriorating and urgently need an overall pavement overlay.”

The biggest danger here, cited by Air New Zealand as they announced their suspension of service, is FOD – Foreign Object Damage. The new Airbus and Boeing aircraft that modern carriers use have larger, more powerful jet engines, and if one of these were to suck up even a few pebbles, the results could be disastrous. Our airstrip and approach areas are currently crumbling, creating an imminent threat of FOD.

But that’s not all. The Daily Post was recently informed that one of AVL’s most senior air traffic controllers’ contract had not been renewed. We don’t know whether this is related to the decades-old communications and navigation equipment at the site, or whether it’s a separate—and equally troubling—issue. But the combination of a lack of experienced operators and sub-standard equipment is another issue that is worrying, to say the least.

Cap all this with the fact that, if something were to happen at Bauerfield, we would be working with fire safety systems that have been found similarly lacking.

It should never have come to this. Continue reading

Sey ‘Was Fully Justified’

Once again PacLII has proved itself an invaluable public legal resource by making all Appeal Court judgments available online within 24 hours of their being handed down.

The decision that has fixated everyone’s attention is Criminal Appeal Case 12 of 2015, titled Kalosil v Public Prosecutor. The judgment brings together six different appeals by the imprisoned MPs in this year’s bribery case.

The appeals on all sentences and convictions were dismissed.

The decision was written by a panel of four judges, led by Chief Justice Vincent Lunabek. It first considered the core facts of the case—that shortly before 21 October, a Hong Kong resident named Fong Man Kelvin sent half a million US dollars to the Pacific International Trust Company, or Pitco, as it’s known locally.

Shortly afterward, the equivalent of US$ 350,000 was transferred to Moana Carcasses, who was then leader of the Opposition. Much of that money was subsequently distributed in Vt1 million chunks to numerous MPs.

Before another month had passed, a motion of No Confidence was tabled in Parliament, featuring the signatures of all the appellants. Continue reading