In the Pacific region, more than 50 per cent of the population live on remote outer islands. This remoteness makes maritime transport the only means of transportation for most Pacific peoples, with a high level of dependence on inter-island transport for the movement of goods and people and for the provision of essential services.

Many Pacific island states are completely dependent on the maritime transport sector for free-flowing trade, and food, energy, and other essential goods to be delivered. Efficient, safe, affordable, and accessible transportation systems not only promote economic productivity and create jobs but can increase access to employment, recreation, education, healthcare and other essential life-shaping opportunities that enable people to improve their living conditions.

A recent report looks at the maritime safety needs of the Pacific and how partners like Australia can work with the region to increase access to safe maritime transportation.

The provision of maritime services in the Pacific is complicated. Small country size, geographical dispersion, low trade volumes, and ageing, inefficient domestic vessels all pose challenges to maritime connectivity in the region. The inherent imbalance between inbound and outbound cargo is extreme and illustrates that most of these routes can never be considered commercially viable.

However, servicing remote islands with safe and reliable transport is a political, social, and economic imperative that cannot be ignored. It goes to the heart of development in the region. Adequate maritime connectivity and access to safe domestic maritime transport is a crucial building block in achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the Pacific.

For example, reliable maritime transport and shipping services improve access to basic goods, services and products that can help lift people out of poverty (SDG 1). Reliable shipping facilitates commerce and opens economic opportunities to remote populations as well as the education pathways needed to secure decent and productive employment (SDG 8). Maritime connections within and between islands contribute to safe, resilient, and sustainable communities, including facilitating disaster and humanitarian responses (SDG 11).

With fish as a major source of nutrition for many Pacific island people, small-scale and subsistence fishers need access to safe fishing vessels, up-to-date weather information and adequate safety equipment to protect their lives at sea (SDG 2).

The availability of safe and reliable domestic ferry services and inter-island and inter-lagoon transport improves access to health services and increases the provision of vaccines and medications to Pacific communities. It also provides access to schools and other educational institutions and promotes opportunities for lifelong learning (SDGs 3 and 4). 

There are links between access to safe and reliable transport and inequality. Individuals and communities that have limited access to transport systems experience higher levels of social exclusion and lower levels of wellbeing compared to people who have good access to safe transport options (SDG 10). Ensuring that transportation is safe for women and girls represents a step toward gender equality and is a gain for women, because it enables them to freely engage in activities they wish to pursue, enhancing their ability to participate in educational and professional activities and in public life with fewer constraints (SDG 5).

The maritime sector is subject to mandatory, binding energy efficiency regulations and standards designed to address greenhouse gas emissions. Decarbonisation of shipping across the Pacific is a positive and ambitious step toward combatting climate change (SDG 13).

Pacific island countries and development partners have long raised issues of maritime connectivity as a critical consideration, and there is a clear, urgent need to upgrade domestic passenger vessels in the region. Countries that wish to partner with the Pacific could support this in a variety of ways. For example, a fleet of domestic ferries could be donated to the region similar to assistance delivered under the Pacific Maritime Security Program. Donated vessels would need to align with the Pacific’s desire to decarbonise its shipping fleets and be supported by a comprehensive package of assistance that allows for ongoing maintenance and training requirements. Alternatively, support could be provided for the development of a local shipbuilding industry that enables Pacific island countries to construct vessels locally that are suited to local needs. This approach would need to ‘start small’ in one country and scaled out to other locations or ‘hubs’ as appropriate. Building on the Pacific’s desire to decarbonise its shipping fleets and adopt up-to-date technology to increase safety at sea, Australia could support Pacific island countries to leverage climate financing opportunities as a source of revenue to upgrade vessels and port facilities.

Affordable, accessible, safe, and reliable shipping is a major driver of sustainable development, especially in countries where maritime transport is the primary means of transportation. Australia and the Pacific have a mutual interest in ensuring that ships in the region are seaworthy, have competent crews and can safely navigate through sensitive marine areas while ensuring maritime safety needs of the Pacific are met. All Pacific peoples benefit from access to affordable, safe, and reliable sea transport.


Heather Wrathall is program lead at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D). This article draws on AP4D’s report on What does it look like for Australia to Partner on Maritime Safety with the Pacific.