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Hideous harbour sights

Tevita Vuibau
Tuesday, November 27, 2012

WHEN Queen Victoria and the Home Office decided to move Fiji's capital from Levuka to Suva in 1877, they realised that the deep water harbour of the new capital made the move all the more sensible.

With Fiji becoming more and more central to trade in the Pacific, the harbour of Suva provided the best chance to accommodate the increasing commerce brought in by ships.

And that legacy lives on today with tuna long-liners, tourist cruise liners and cargo vessels from all over the Pacific and the world docking in Suva each day to take advantage of the natural facilities of the harbour.

But with the increase in number of local and international vessels frequenting the harbour, an ugly problem has begun to take root. The problem is that of derelict and partially sunk vessels.

At the moment there are about 20 wrecks in and along the shores of Suva Harbour and the Bay of Islands off Lami. These are posing threats not only to local vessels, but international ones as well. The vessels also threaten the environment and are a constant eyesore.

Repeated attempts by concerned parties to get the authorities to clear up the harbour have often not been successful. The Suva Harbour Foundation is one of these parties.

Founded under Fiji's charitable trusts act in February 2004, the foundation's goal is to support efforts to prevent or mitigate pollution and other harmful phenomena occurring within Fiji, with the focus on Suva Harbour.

Foundation member Bob Gillett told this newspaper that despite several letters and calls to the Fiji Ports Corporation Limited, there were many examples in which nothing had been done.

Under the Sea Ports Management Act of 2005 the Ports Authority with the approval of the Board of Directors and the chief executive officer may order the removal of any derelict or dangerous vessel from a port or the approaches to a port.

If no action is taken in relation to a vessel in respect of which notice has been given within the time stated in the notice, the CEO may arrange for the removal of the vessel and its sale by auction or its destruction, as he or she sees fit.

Mr Gillett revealed that many vessels turning derelict in the Suva Harbour were only able to do so as they were abandoned by their crews and left to rot — an issue he says authorities should have taken care of.

"The Fiji Ports Corporation has the legal power, when they see a boat anchored — like off Mosquito Island for a year and it's getting lower and lower into the water, and its beginning to list and go down.

"They have the power under part eight of the Sea Ports Management Act 2005, they have the authority. All they have to do is put a notice on the vessel for a certain number of days and then they can tow it, they can take it outside the harbour and they can sink it or they can sell it.

"Our problem is that they have not often used that power when advised of a sinking boat," Mr Gillett stated. He said it would be much cheaper to simply tow an abandoned vessel out of the harbour and sink it rather than watching it sink in the harbour and go through the large expense of having to refloat it. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure".

Mr Gillett would like to see a "hot line": a telephone number where members of the public can report a vessel about to sink or a case of oil pollution in the harbour.

"There was a particular boat here that ran aground right at the surf spot a few years back, right at the entrance to the harbour — it could have been salvaged at that point," Mr Gillett said.

"We let the Ports Authority know about it over and over again between May and November and now the oil has leaked out, the wreck moved around and destroyed much of the coral.

"And now you can see just a little bit of the engine block of the boat but it shows you the non-activity of the Ports Authority," he said.

"They could have pulled the boat off the reef for a couple of hundred dollars. I suspect that it's just pure bureaucratic inertia, they have their own program and this just gets very little priority," he lamented.

Mr Gillett acknowledged that there had been efforts to clean up the vessels in the harbour however he remained adamant that it would be much easier to tow the vessels out before they sink rather than after.

"If it sinks outside the harbour it's less of a problem, but if it sinks near Mosquito Island — a recreational area transited by local vessels — it becomes more problematic."

Mr Gillett said there was a need for better monitoring of vessels anchoring inside the harbour .

"If I can go out on my boat and have a look at some of these derelict and partially sinking vessels once a month, you'd think that somebody at the Ports Corporation would be able to do the same and then use the powers afforded to them in the act to take care of them if they are abandoned," he said.

However the FPCL refuted Mr Gillett's claims that they were not exercising their powers under the Sea Ports Management Act.

FPCL ports operations general manager Eminoni Kurusiga said the issue of derelict vessels in the Suva Harbour was the responsibility of FPCL but he added the issue was not all black and white.

"Derelicts in the harbour is currently Fiji Ports' responsibility. However you need to understand from the onset the definition of a derelict vessel as per the Sea Port Management Regulation 2008," Mr Kurusiga said.

"A derelict vessel as per our regulation refers to a vessel that has been unmanned for up to 21 days. Unmanned in the sense that there is an absence of minimum number of crew on board.

"A minimum number is required so that when we (Fiji Ports) request that particular vessel to move it has to do so," Mr Kurusiga said.

Mr Kurusiga also said not all derelict vessels could be termed dangerous.

"May be a dangerous vessel is a wrecked vessel — unfortunately we don't have any definition on dangerous or wrecked vessel in our regulation."

In spite of this gap in the act, Mr Kurusiga maintained that the current legislation was adequate to deal with derelict and dangerous vessels in the harbour.

He added that since there was no definition for dangerous or wrecked vessels, he did not have the total number of those in the Suva Harbour.

Mr Kurusiga also denied Mr Gillett's claims that the authority was not exercising its powers under the Sea Ports Management Act to clear the harbour of the vessels.

"Who said that this has not been used?" Mr Kurusiga questioned.

"This again goes back to what has been stated that you need to understand our definition of a derelict vessel," he said.

"This (clearing of derelict vessels) is one of the difficult subjects we are trying to address as some of these vessels have been wrecked via natural causes and at the same time quite difficult to identify the true owners.

"We have tried tendering them out but without much response," he said.

Mr Kurusiga also said there had not been any record of any international vessels bumping into the wrecks neither had FPCL received any complaints from international shipping companies about the wrecks in the harbour.

But Dive Centre manager Charles St Julian said there was at least one case where an international vessel had run over a wreck.

"The wrecks that are near the surface or just below are a hazard to ongoing ship movements in the harbour, as I said there was a boat from Taroa that ran over the South Star wreck.

"It clipped one of the propellers and scratched the flat bottom vessel as it was making manoeuvres to come into the harbour."

He said there was also the wreck of the vessel Tai Kabara that was run over by a boat based at the Royal Suva Yacht Club.

"One of our club members ran into it and it put a split in the side of his fibreglass boat and he had to get the boat quickly into the careening bay to stop it from sinking."

Mr St Julian, who has also conducted salvaging operations in the Suva harbour said salvage operations could cost anywhere from $25,000 for smaller ships while larger ones could cost over $200,000. Comparatively, hiring a tug to drag out a derelict vessel before it sinks will cost a few hundred dollars.

Mr St Julian said the high cost involved in salvage operations was because of the expenses incurred while purchasing materials for the salvage .

Royal Suva Yacht Club Commodore, Mark Hurst said derelict vessels were posing concerns to not only the local yachties but to international yachts that normally frequent the yacht club.

"When it's really high tide you can just see them (wrecks and derelict vessels) and if you know they're there its OK but if you don't — there's no lights on them and you could easily smack into them at night time," Mr Hurst said.

"There are some of these sunken vessels that have not been marked on maps and they could very easily cause accidents.

"There have been several of the boats from the yacht club that have almost hit it and one of the vessels from here, Joshua, actually was hulled by the wreck just outside the yacht club," he said.

Mr Hurst echoed the sentiments of Bob Gillett and added the situation had got so bad that most international yachts did not come into harbour at night for fear of hitting the wrecks.

"We're always being asked what's happening with these vessels and we just have to explain that they have either been impounded or they have broken down and are not sea-worthy any more or their owners have just left them.

"It's not a good look for Suva Harbour."

Mr Hurst explained a bond of about $200,000 should be placed on all vessels entering the harbour in order to cover the costs of taking care of a vessel in the event that it was left derelict.

However Mr Kurusiga said that while levying of a bond was a good idea, FPCL could only charge whatever was stipulated in the tariff.

"Every vessel that enters a port must have a local shipping agent. Fiji Ports does not contact the vessel owners directly," Mr Kurusiga said

"The onus is on these agents to inform Fiji Ports on the status of their vessels. In the event there is something wrong with these vessels then of course Fiji Ports will be on the agents' backs," he added.

At present, the Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji places an environmental levy on vessels in the harbour, however questions from this newspaper on what money from the levies was being used for remained unanswered.

And while the search for a solution to the wrecks goes on,the environment continues to suffer.

University of the South Pacific head of the school of Marine Studies Professor Joeli Veitayaki. "The problem with these vessels is the pollution that they cause, some of these vessels when they go down, they still have fuel in their tanks," Professor Veitayaki said.

"So this fuel will seep through the pipes and there are also portions of the vessel that still have oil in them."

Mr Veitayaki said the metal rusting in the sea would also be an issue for the environment.

Mr Gillett — who is also a fisheries consultant — said there was also fisheries problems associated with wrecks.

"When wrecks roll around on the reef, they destroy coral which can result in a flat substrate and you would expect less fisheries production over such an area than you would if there was a lot of vibrant coral," Mr Gillett said.

"Also there can be outbreaks of ciguatera fish poisoning, its been shown that where there is a shipwreck, you get a particular blue green algae that grows on the bottom.

"You get small herbivorous fish that eat that and you tend to get outbreaks of ciguatera fish poisoning in places just after a ship wreck.

"So the environmental effects would be a reduced coral substrate and then chances of substrate disturbance that would lead to fish poisoning," he said.

Mr Gillett also said that, when compared to harbours in other Pacific Island Countries where there is effective management followed up by substantial enforcement (like Pagopago, American Samoa), there is much to be desired in the management of Suva Harbour.

And so in the midst of all the semantics of the act, problems in ascertaining ownership of the derelict vessels, and constant bickering between authorities and concerned parties, the vessels lay in their watery graves.

There does not seem to be a solution on the horizon and the once proud harbour that attracted a capital — does not look quite so proud anymore.

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