Prostitution and Pacific fishing

Ben Bohane

Fishing and prostitution might be the two oldest professions. But the exploitation of both is creating new vulnerabilities for Pacific islands as the whole world increasingly comes to fish in its waters. Ben Bohane reports from Kiribati.

The deck of the Taiwanese purse-seiner bustles with activity. At anchor a few kilometres off Tarawa in Kiribati, tons of skipjack tuna are lifted from a refrigerated hold up onto the sweltering topdeck for transhipment to a ship moored beside it. Whistles blow, nets of shimmering fish are raised and swung onto the mothership, which will take its cargo to canneries in Papua New Guinea and Taiwan.
But look closer and another small transhipment is also taking place between the two rolling boats. A young girl is gingerly easing herself down thick ropes from the mothership onto the purse-seiner. It is a delicate balancing act 20 metres above water and for a moment she looks like a trapeze artist, walking the tightrope. She smiles at one of the Taiwanese crew as she drops like a cat onto the deck and disappears into a nearby cabin. Here in Kiribati she is known as a "korakorea" girl; a girl who spends time with fishermen.

Not as romantic as it seems

In the Pacific, the practice of sweet young girls paddling out to foreign boats to introduce their charms to restless seamen is nothing new, it is almost a cliché of Pacific history. European sailors were fond of dropping anchor in places like Tahiti knowing they would be "warmly welcomed" after long and lonely months at sea. Such women helped cause mutiny on the Bounty, and much else to inspire romantic notions in Europe that the Pacific islands were an Eden of sorts.

Although the practice continues today, there is little romance and far more dangers involved for the girls - the spectre of AIDS and social/psychological consequences of girls as young as 12 involved gives the fishing industry a dark side that is rarely contemplated when consumers open a tin of tuna.

In reality, there are growing social consequences as a result of a rapacious fishing industry worth an estimated US$2.7 billion per year. More than half the world's tuna, about 2 million tons per year, now comes from the Pacific region.

Why the world is coming to the Pacific for fish

The Pacific ocean holds the world's last great fish supply - since many of the world's oceans have been substantially overfished in recent decades. The EU, after enforcing a moratorium on cod fishing in the Atlantic which put much of the European fleet on dry dock, has recently signed a number of bi-lateral deals with Pacific island states to fish in their waters.

Europe now sources much of its tuna from the Pacific - in Germany, for example, half the tuna consumed there comes from Kiribati alone. The EU fleet now joins China, Taiwan, Japan, Russia, America, The Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and others who are ranging far into the Pacific, often unmonitored, to harvest schools of fish (mainly tuna) on an industrial scale.

Korakorea girls

As in most places, prostitution is hardly a modern phenomenon. In Kiribati, the term "korakorea" was first coined to describe local girls who went aboard Korean fishing vessels, but is now more generally used for girls going onboard fishing boats from any country as well as being slang for "cheap fish".

Many do it because of poverty at home and the chance to earn money, clothes and fish to take home. Some girls get pressured by their families to do it. Others claim they do it so they can get "drinking money for their friends" and because the foreign fishermen treat them better than their local men do.

There is no law against prostitution in Kiribati, which was highlighted recently when 80 girls were rounded up and brought before a local court before being released. Yet there is growing concern that Kiribati maybe breaching international conventions on child protection since many of the girls are only 14 and 15 years of age. UNICEF is preparing to release a damning document relating to underage prostitution in several Pacific countries, including Kiribati.


Linda, 21, a sexworker who says she spends days and nights on visiting purse seiners in the Tarawa harbour. Kiribati may be breaching international conventions on child protection since many of the sexworkers are only 14 and 15 years of age.
One girl involved in the trade, "Kathy", claims girls as young as 12 are involved.

"I know about one 12 year old girl who was taken out to a fishing boat by her aunty and she has disappeared. Her family are very worried since she has been missing now for 4 months".

Kathy is a pretty 21 year old girl who lives with her father, an unemployed former government worker, in a crowded settlement near the Betio port on south Tarawa. She claims there are many local girls involved in the trade and they all have different motivations.

"It all depends because some they really need money to support their families with food, so they feel some pressure. Other girls need money to buy drinks for themselves and friends when they want to go out to the bars".

Kathy says that even though their have been crackdowns by local authorities the girls are not scared of getting caught by police because "their family are supporting them".

Taking advantage of history and attitudes

This is what makes prostitution in Kiribati and other Pacific islands a complex issue. For many Pacific cultures it is not a big deal; sex, custom and fishing are all intertwined, subject to tabus. Many islanders do not view such exchanges as "prostitution". Fishing and sex have long been linked to traditions that were, in itself, not necessarily a bad thing, because everything was shared within communities and remote islands needed "new blood" to prevent inbreeding and keep the tribe strong to defend from raiding enemies. Ritual exchanges of things like fish and women kept the peace among neighbours.

In Kiribati, as a recent UNICEF document points out, prostitution is not new.

"In 1826 prostitutes were referred to as Nikiranroro, meaning those who had lost their virginity or had eloped. Whalers were much criticised and blamed for having increased prostitution in the islands...and that venereal disease was said to have been more widespread after whaling contacts".

Modern times

As President of the Kiribati National Council of Women (AMAK), Mere agrees the korakorea issue is a complex one, but believes that young girls should be in school and better guided by their parents or guardians.

"It is an issue here because it is against our culture and tradition. In the olden days, at age 14 or 15, girls were kept in the home doing work that assured your future life as a woman and they were very restricted in their night time outings. But now Kiribati is in the swell of globalisation and the issue of korakorea...well, that's how things happen now."

Modernity, a cash economy and the loss of tradition has created new vulnerabilities for coastal communities of the Pacific. Legal and illegal fishing by foreign vessels have introduced a range of social problems apart from the environmental impact of depleted fish stocks. Mere believes there is a "dangerous cycle" linking alcohol abuse, violence, sexual abuse and disease that is afflicting many Pacific nations including her own.

Communities that once shared everything now find a new rich/poor divide is splitting them and AIDS is an ever present danger. According to the HIV AIDS clinic at Tarawa General Hospital, Kiribati (population 92,000) has 43 confirmed AIDS cases of which 26 have already died.

"I'd say almost all the cases of AIDS here are related to the fishing industry" claims one of the nurses testing blood samples. "It is coming from both foreign fishermen and our own sailors returning home".

More enforcement tools needed

David Yee Ting, Kiribati's Permanent Secretary for Fisheries, claims that the government is getting on top of the situation, saying, "Our new Police Commissioner has been enforcing the laws to stop girls - and those who help them - go out to the boats."

He confirms that the situation got so bad that for a period in 2003, Kiribati actually banned all Korean fishing boats from entering Kiribati ports after reports in the Korean Herald that 30-50 girls, mostly underage, were servicing the Korean fishermen.

Asked whether he thought Kiribati was also getting ripped off on its core asset, fisheries, Ting says "That's a bit harsh, but yes, we could be getting a better return. We only have one patrol boat and we don't have many trained fisheries officers who can be stationed on boats to monitor catches."

"But as Pacific states come together through regional bodies like the FFA (Forum Fisheries Authority, based in Solomon Islands) and the WCPFC (Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, based in Marshall Islands), I believe we will have more collective power to get a better deal on our fish resources".

Ting is upbeat about the recent deal signed between the EU and Kiribati, believing the EU will help develop the local industry with more local employment and training. Other observers are not so sanguine:

"I don't think we should have vessels from 5,000 miles away fishing here. Why are they fishing here? Because they have stuffed their own region and now they are coming down here to do it" is the blunt assessment of Captain David Lucas, manager of Solander Pacific Fiji.

"We've got purse-seiners from the European Union fishing in Kiribati. Why should they be down here? What have they done to their own? Who's next?"

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1 comment:

Tim Adams said...

Hi Ben

If you are going to be re-posting stuff published elsewhere, wouldn't it be a good idea to quote the source? Particularly if you are making money out of it by hosting advertising ...