Analysis: Domestic Shipping Services Never Prioritised

Our regional shipping services provided by well-established liner services are generally adequate with reasonably modern and well maintained fleets. But domestic shipping services, those that provide essential connectivity in our
30 Sep 2020 15:14
Analysis: Domestic Shipping Services Never Prioritised
Cargo ship Capitaine Tasman berth at Suva Harbour on September 29, 2020. Photo: Ronald Kumar.

Our regional shipping services provided by well-established liner services are generally adequate with reasonably modern and well maintained fleets.

But domestic shipping services, those that provide essential connectivity in our island archipelagos nations, are often in very poor repair.

Systemic issues, including financing and lack of economies of scale on extended bluewater routes, mean we are often trapped in a vicious cycle of old, badly maintained vessels being replaced by more.

All are diesel – the biggest operational cost – and the dependency is crippling to all national budgets.

And, unsurprisingly, it is the smallest, most remote and vulnerable of our communities on outer islands most disadvantaged.

For these, shipping services are infrequent and often erratic, and the most expensive per capita volume/km to service.


The cost and strain of maintaining essential connectivity to outer islands with few resources to trade apart from fish, seaweed, and copra has seen an escalating internal migration to urban centres, setting up yet another vicious cycle.

The importance of shipping as the essential economic, social, and government service link of our maritime communities has never been fully prioritised.

Despite transport being the region’s single largest fuel and emissions contributor, renewable electricity agendas have taken precedence.

Globally, shipping in 2050 will invariably look different from 2020 under a full decarbonisation pathway.

Pacific high ambition states have been consistent in their call for the sector to pay its full role in the global agenda at International Maritime Organisation (IMO). But the huge risk and conundrum is that the big nations and traders will now transition and leave us stranded with aged, inefficient and increasingly expensive to operate fleets.

Our socio-geographic realities necessitate a different scale and approach in development response to encourage improved connectivity in line with national, regional, and global Sustainable Developemnt Goals (SDG) commitments.

Fiji and the Marshall Islands announced the Pacific Blue Shipping Partnership (PBSP) at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in September, 2019.

The PBSP seeks to mobilise US$500m (F$1.08billion) to ensure Pacific Island countries, currently reliant on a fleet of domestic vessels in which the majority are over 20 years old (and over a third exceed 30 years old), catalyse the paradigm shift over the 2020-2030 period.


While full decarbonisation will require new fuels, research shows the technology exists to accrue significant savings in domestic Pacific shipping scenarios now.

The challenge rests in working with partners bilaterally and multilaterally across all sectors to ensure financing this fleet renewal leads to development of capacity with the region to design, construct, service, operate, and reinvigorate the maritime transport industry. Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport (MCST)’s joint research endeavour with Swire Shipping on Project Cerulean targets the shipping needs of our outer island communities.

The call is for a low tech, low cost vessel of around 40metres, capable of regular and safe delivery of basic cargo, yielding a 50 per cent reduction in operational fuel cost.

Over the course of 2019-2020, MCST has been working with a team of maritime professionals and academics to investigate the most appropriate design and route to trial a prototype vessel able to achieve cost-effective and energy efficient operations over a two-year trial period following construction in 2021 – expected to occur at a qualified shipyard within the Pacific.

During the operational trial, extensive monitoring, reporting, and verification will be undertaken as part of MCST’s research commitmen

This undertaking is expected to yield a robust data set on the direct and indirect impacts (and benefits) of replicating and scaling this type of service to outer island communities across the Pacific.

Project Cerulean

Project Cerulean represents a novel public-private partnership for the Oceania region, with potential to guide the broader implementation of the PBSP, which is expected to involve blended finance aimed at implementing solutions for both government and private vessel operators with sufficient capital and concessional lending modalities to improve service through fleet renewal with low carbon alternatives and reduced operational expenditures. Project Cerulean is targeting transport work requirements often neglected in broader international shipping discussions.

The scale at which outer island communities require service often seems bafflingly small to shipping lines accustomed to logistics of large, containerised units moving between capital/urban ports.

As the initial research phase draws to a successful close, Project Cerulean has already demonstrated the benefits of multi-sectoral partnership. Swire’s resourcing commitment has empowered a Design Review Team supported by Captain John Rounds, CEO of Kiribati National Shipping Line, Capt. Brad Ives & Capt.

Evy Resheph of Island Ventures (operating the SV Kwai ), and Capt. Prof. Michael Vahs’ team at Hochschule Emden/Leer University of Applied Sciences.

French naval architecture firm VPLP is now working with Lloyd’s Register to ensure this new vessel meets stringent design standards to operate in-class, setting a precedent for safe, sustainable domestic shipping in the Pacific. Collaboration and dialogue are critical to address this goal in the years to come.

  •  Andrew Irvin is the University of the South Pacific project officer for the Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport

Edited by Karalaini Waqanidrola

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