Tragedy’s a Reminder of Need for Maritime Ministry

Arley Gill

by Arley Gill

My heartfelt condolences go out to those who lost their loved ones in the tragic boating incident on the 7 February.

It was heart-wrenching when I heard the devastating news. I feel it for the families and the community that was directly affected. I want them to know that their loss is our loss, and we share their pain at this extremely unfortunate time in their lives.

Strangely, this maritime accident gave me a reminder of a cause I was fighting for some years ago.

When I was a member of the NDC party and later sat in government, I tried to share a vision for a maritime ministry or department — or whatever name we choose to call it. The essence of the idea was to have a body of highly technical and trained minds to administer our maritime space. Needless to say, I was not taken seriously at the time; the present NDC political leader cheekily commented then that I wanted a ministry for myself. And Prime Minister Tillman Thomas, after firing me from his cabinet, untruthfully told the nation I was assigned to be ambassador of the ocean or something to that effect.

As it is, the Grenada Ports Authority manages our ports and deals with issues concerning shipping. The Ministry of Fisheries deals with fishing. The Coast Guard unit of the Royal Grenada Police Force largely handles maritime law enforcement and security, which involves search and rescue; but, the Coast Guard mostly concerns itself with interceding and preventing drug trafficking at sea.

My idea was to create a body of maritime professionals — in all disciplines — to develop policies for our maritime space, including search and rescue; oil and gas exploration and exploitation; leisure sports (such as regattas, sailing, Billfish tournaments); yachting; fishing; shipping; and so on. One of the main objectives is to maximize the economic potential of our maritime space.

Everyone appreciates that we have more seawater than land; and the least we can do is to make an effort to explore the economic potential of our sea. Since the British gave us independence we have never earnestly addressed this issue. Admittedly, Grenada is not alone; other CARICOM countries are guilty of the same oversight.

In the case of Grenada and St Vincent, we share the Grenadine Islands. These islands’ economies are largely based on the sea. I remember some time ago, we were working on a common approach between Grenada and St Vincent for yachts. The idea was to have a hassle-free zone for the yachts, knowing that our borders are so close in the Grenadines. I am not sure where that is now.

Grenada and St Vincent also made a joint application to UNESCO for the Grenadines to be considered as a world natural heritage site. Those are two concrete examples of two nations working together to develop a shared interest.

Now, in considering search and rescue, for instance, I am of the considered view that Grenada should have at least one helicopter attached to the Coast Guard unit. True, that may not be cheap; but, the United States donates vessels; it’s time the Americans take it up a notch and make a gift of a helicopter.

A helicopter can be shared between Grenada and St Vincent. It will certainly aid our Coast Guard men in their work. Moreover, it can assist in other areas, not just in search and rescue.

In addition, we also need to consider setting up a permanent base for a small coast guard cutter in Carriacou; the cutter should be well-equipped to assist with quick response.

Now, from all reports, the police officers of the RGPF’s Coast Guard unit reacted well and did a great job during last Sunday’s unfortunate incident at sea. However, that must not prevent us from thinking about how we can improve.

For example, there ought to be laws on inter-island travel by vessel and there is also a need for public education on safety at sea. The safety education campaign should be intensified around the Carriacou carnival and regatta weekends when maritime traffic is increased significantly. Overloading 12 persons in an 18-foot fishing boat is far too risky; those who may not be aware of the dangers should be alerted. I am sure such overloading was done successfully and without incident before; but, with most things, it just takes once for something to go wrong.

Sometimes, it takes something tragic to happen for us to spring into action. I don’t know if anything could have been done to prevent last Sunday’s tragedy. But, it is my fervent hope that we can attempt to work overtime to do as much as we can to enhance safety at sea.

Maybe, it’s a good time for the present administration to seriously consider this area of national development.

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