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Second fatality this year from faulty equipment

NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Dec. 14, 2011) – In Tonga, a diver from Tungua who died from decompression on Friday, December 9, was the second fatality this year from the use of prohibited diving equipment.

The Acting Police Commissioner Taniela Faletau said on December 13, that the 43-year-old man from the island of Tungua died after diving for sea cucumber near Luanamo in Ha'apai.

He said police at Pangai investigated the death and said the deceased was diving with two other fishermen, using oxygen supplied through a plastic hose. The deceased experienced severe abdominal pain and was brought to Luanamo island to wait for a health officer from Ha'afeva, but he died before medical help arrived.

An inquest on December 11 at Ha'afeva in Ha'apai concluded the death was caused by nitrogen accumulation in the body tissue due to decompression problem.

The police confirmed this was the second death from decompression for 2011 and both deaths were in Ha'apai, despite warnings from the medical and fisheries authorities.

In September a 54-year-old man from Ngele'ia, Tongatapu, died from decompression after diving for sea cucumbers near the island of Leleka.

The Acting Police Commissioner said that illegal harvesting of sea cucumbers continued, despite the harvesting season being closed since October 15.

Police made arrests over the weekend in Nuku'alofa, after further investigation by police into the diver's death at Luanamo found two Asian men had bought sea cucumbers from those Ha'apai fishermen. They left on a boat from Ha'apai to Nuku'alofa with sea cucumbers on Saturday, December 10 after the diver died at Luanamo.

Taniela said police in Nuku'alofa arrested two Asian men and three Tongan men on Saturday evening.

The two Asian men are charged with two counts each of illegal harvesting of sea cucumbers off-season and using illegal equipment for fishing sea cucumber under the Fisheries Management Act and Regulations 2007.

They appeared at the Magistrate's Court on December 12 and were bailed until January, 2012.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Fisheries is aware that illegal harvesting of sea cucumber is a problem in Tonga, and that it continues despite the law clearly stating the harvest season runs only from April 1 to September 20 annually. It was only this year that the season was extended from September 30 to October 15.

This year only 11 licenses were awarded to local operators, including three for Tongatapu, three for Vava'u, four for Ha'apai and one for Niuatoputapu.

Poasi Ngaluafe, the Head of the Research Division of the Ministry of Fisheries, said on December 14, that the illegal fishing of sea cucumbers outside of the harvesting season, and using illegal equipments prohibited under the Fisheries Management Act, was not new in Tonga.

He said the Fisheries Act was clear and fishermen knew very well the closed season of harvesting, yet they still continued to commit the illegal harvesting. He believed that they were driven by the economic hardship by committing the illegal harvesting and resorting to use prohibited diving equipment.

Under the Fisheries Act the using of two equipments, the hookar and scupper for harvesting of sea cucumbers is prohibited in Tonga. For one to use these two equipments one has to be properly trained on how to use it but those continue to ignore this, he said.

The Fisheries Division repeatedly informed fishermen and the public on the law and the danger of using such equipment, in public programs broadcasted on television and radio, he said.

Poasi said that the Fisheries Division does not have the capacity to enforce compliance of the law because they do not have boats like coastguards to monitor the seas for illegal harvesting.

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