A national program to renovate navigational aids is guiding big and small ships through Papua New Guineas largely uncharted and often unsafe waters. In Milne Bay, these beacons are also boosting night fishing, trade, and local shipping.
Alotau, Milne Bay - There is a joke among the women of Nuakata Island - one of dozens of islands strewn off Papua New Guineas southeastern province of Milne Bay - that their men are abandoning them at night for modern-day versions of the sirens of Greek mythology.
In the fable, the enchanting songs of seductive women lured ships crews to their islands rocky shores, only to be shipwrecked.
Amid the waters of Milne Bay province, which stretch for hundreds of kilometers and include major shipping lanes between Australasia and the rest of the world, some 38 recently renovated lighthouses are similarly acting as a magnet - for fishers keen to increase their catch.
"Fish take the bait more at night and, with the lighthouse to make sure I do not get lost, I catch two or three times as many fish at night than by day," says Jack Henry, a fisher at East Cape on the easternmost tip of mainland Papua New Guinea, as he squats on his outrigger canoe in sight of a lighthouse. Matching his bigger hauls, Henry has lifted his income from selling fish in the local market to between 400 and 500 kina ($160 and $200) a week.
It is a tale that echoes among far-flung island communities that now have functioning lighthouses. Just off Samarai Island, a former colonial seat of power and commerce due to its strategic location in the China Strait, a beacon is once again illuminating the way for international and local vessels.
Increased Economic Activity
At Samarais bustling market, local ward councilor Perry Dotaona says the nocturnal lights enable more people to fish and travel in the evenings. As a result of rising living standards, he says residents on nearby Logea Island, where he lives, are now constructing homes made of concrete and corrugated iron to replace traditional huts built with walls of sago bark and roofs of sago leaves.
Significantly, such increased economic activity is supported by a lively interisland shipping sector. Thanks to the teachings of an influential missionary at the turn of the 19th century, boatbuilding is an entrenched tradition in Milne Bay. On a typical day, the harbor at the provincial capital of Alotau is packed with locally made workboats and banana boats.
They carry people like trader Noel Tomiyavau, who runs a store on the island of Goodenough, and says he is doing brisk business, regularly making the 13-hour trip from his home to Alotau. He brings fish to the capital and takes back rice, sugar, and kerosene.
The boat operators are making tidy profits, too. Standing by his 12-meter workboat, the MV Triumph Alotau, skipper Henry Morea, says he charges 50 kina ($20) for a one-way passage between Alotau to Goodenough. If he carries a full load of 36 passengers - and he generally does not leave until he does - that represents a handsome return after deducting costs of diesel [150 kina ($60) for 50 liters], oil, and food and drink for passengers and crew.
Workboats in Papua New Guinea are often overloaded to increase income despite the dangers of capsizing in rough weather. "Our job includes regulating the number of passengers for safety," says Salo Begg, a marine inspector in Milne Bay. "But these boat operators are clever - they leave at night when we are not around to supervise them or they stop off along the coast and collect extra passengers along the way."
The pick-up in the Milne Bay economy, especially in the outer islands, is welcome news for Robert Kaul, who is managing two projects financed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which are reviving a long-neglected maritime sector and helping isolated costal communities.
"I am very excited that we are bringing progress to our maritime provinces, which have been neglected for over 30 years, but where over half the countrys population lives," says Kaul.
As the Rehabilitation of the Maritime Navigation Aids System Project, supported by an ADB loan of $20.6 million, nears completion, it has already had a noticeable impact. Countrywide, it has renovated 167 lighthouses that had fallen into disuse through vandalism, theft, and neglect during the decades following Papua New Guineas independence in September 1975.
Shorter, Safer Routes
The lighthouses are helping international and local ships negotiate tricky waters - 90% of which are still uncharted - that conceal reefs and shoals, as well as being frequently buffeted by strong winds and heavy rain.
The big ships sailing between Australasia and Asia can now save much time and fuel by taking a short cut through the China Strait and Raven Channel near mainland Papua New Guinea, instead of traveling much further out to cross through the Jomard Strait, notes Kaul.
Local ships benefit, too. "When the lighthouses were not working, accidents were common and many lives were lost," says Andrew Sarto, a wiry workboat skipper who has been plying interisland routes for 35 years. "Some vessels would crash onto the reefs, others would get lost and blow off course." He says the number of reported marine accidents has fallen since the lighthouses have been fixed.
A second ADB-supported program, the Community Water Transport Project, backed by a $12.85-million Special Drawing Rights soft loan, is seeking to help coastal communities that lack Milne Bays thriving small boat sector.
This project aims to spark economic activity - fishing, as well as growing copra, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, and betel nuts - along the coastline of remoter places such as Manus, New Britain, and New Ireland.
"Boats do not stop at isolated villages in these provinces; but if they did, the communities would have the incentive to sell fish and agricultural produce in the provincial capitals," says Allan Lee, officer-in-charge of ADBs resident mission in Port Moresby. "So we plan to install jetties and encourage workboat operators to open up routes that link these villages with the provincial capitals." The plan is to subsidize ship operators initially but to let market forces take over when the new routes become established.
A key element in all this has been the recent creation of the National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA). Previously, the maritime sector came under the Department of Transport and Civil Aviation, where it took a back seat to roads and aviation in terms of priorities and budget.
Today, NMSA, established in 2005 and still expanding in staff and capacity, raises revenues through shipping levies and other sources, and is responsible for maritime safety, search and rescue operations, and environmental issues, such as oil spills. It is also slowly acquiring technical skills, such as hydrographic surveying and mapping activities currently undertaken by the Australian navy.
NMSA, created under the first ADB project and being strengthened under the second, will ensure sustainability as it takes over responsibilities from the projects. For example, an important part of the lighthouse project is that communities are being paid to maintain the lighthouses and safeguard them from vandalism.
"Vandalism and theft were the major causes of lighthouse damage," says Julius Violarius, the contractor who rehabilitated the lighthouses countrywide. "Solar panels were being stolen for use at home, but we have rebuilt the structures to make this harder."
Crucial to the projects success has been persuading local communities to look after the lighthouses in their vicinity.
"We pay rent for the land on which the lighthouse stands, or purchase the land outright, and we also pay the community a yearly fee for cleaning, grass cutting, and generally maintaining the lighthouse, with a bonus if there is no vandalism," says Dinah Inape, a community development officer who was engaged under the ADB project and has now transferred to NMSA. Such community work has been painstaking, involving much negotiation to resolve land ownership disputes, but it is yielding results.
"Vandalism has decreased markedly," says Lee. "In some provinces, villages are seeing the benefits of the lighthouses and asking for more of them."
Meanwhile, the women of Nuakata may joke about their missing menfolk, but they are not complaining about the bigger catches of fish the men are bringing home.