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Deployed to Solomon Islands

Lieutenant Commander Vicki Stevens was recently deployed with her family as New Zealand's representative to the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, based in Honiara. Now back home and promoted to Commander, she talks about her time in Solomon Islands.

05 March, 2022

There’s no doubt that every secondment to Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) is unique in its way, but CDR Stevens, the third person to take on the maritime surveillance planning role since 2014, had more challenges than most in her two-year stint.

The FFA, with its regional headquarters in Honiara, is a collaboration of 17 Pacific Island members working together to develop, control and manage fisheries resources that fall within their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). LTCDR Stevens’ work was in the Regional Fisheries Surveillance Centre, responsible for planning and coordination of maritime surveillance operations across the EEZs.

When she started in January 2020, COVID-19 was something happening in a handful of locations. By mid year, Defence was asking, would you like to come home? Travel out was complex with one flight a week or less, and returning to Solomon Islands was even trickier.  We’ll stay, said LTCDR Stevens. It’s complicated to get home, and we don’t love the idea of quarantine with two small boys!

So she got stuck into a very enjoyable role. “This is one of New Zealand’s contributions to maritime security in the Pacific. We’re helping to create a stable and secure environment, by protecting fisheries, we in turn protect food and economic security for the FFA members. The Pacific is becoming an area of increasing interest, and I found it fascinating to be a part of this during my secondment.”

The FFA, she says, works with members to deliver what they want, and there are always different priorities to consider.

“That can be  a challenge and that’s what I loved about the role. You weren’t just talking with one country. You develop relationships across the region. You keep everyone informed. It’s all about the personal connection.”

Pacific Members conduct their own maritime surveillance however bigger nations with useful resources –such as “P-Quads” – support the FFA maritime surveillance efforts. “That’s the Pacific Quadrilateral Defence Coordination Group - Australia, France, New Zealand, and the United States. They have all contributed significant surveillance support over an extended period.  During my time the Royal Navy, with their two Pacific-based Offshore Patrol Vessels SPEY and TAMAR, were also asking how they can contribute in the region.” There’s regularly an RNZAF P-3 Orion working the Pacific, or another “Quad” nation’s aircraft or ship undertaking patrols and boardings, she says. The FFA also operate two Beechcraft King Air surveillance aircraft, funded by Australia, and tasked in Member countries at their request.

But COVID has had an impact. When CDR Stevens flew out in December 2021, there had been no community transmission, and 20 cases identified in quarantine in Solomon Islands.  “It’s been a really different experience over the last two years. There might have been a global pandemic, but we had little to no restrictions in how we lived in the Solomons. No mask wearing. Everyone going into work, group exercise, socialising.” In early 2022, it was evident there is now an escalating community outbreak. “It’s about to go crazy, and we missed it by weeks.”

Lieutenant Commander Vicki Stevens was deployed as New Zealand's representative to the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency

COVID had other impacts on fisheries surveillance. Less observers on fishing vessels. Less inspections at ports. Less aerial surveillance. The FFA aircraft were unable to fly for months, due to complexities of gaining national approvals and meeting the quarantine requirements. Many Pacific nations were hesitant about hosting surveillance flights and their crew, having kept out COVID for so long.

“Over time, the temptation to do illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing becomes greater.”

A silver lining from COVID travel restrictions was developing other ways to communicate, through video conferencing. “No-one was doing any travel. A stack of our members signed up to Zoom. Instead of people coming to Honiara once a year, as well as the other international training, workshops and meetings, we went online. In the last six months, we were even more deliberate about offering training sessions and briefings on line, rather than people coming to deliver training. It’s about fitting in with the environment, and Zoom offered a lot of cool opportunities.

“I lived in Honiara, but the FFA is full of Pacific people, not just Solomon Islanders.  We’re working with and for the Pacific. That was a total highlight for me, having that shared cultural understanding across a spectrum of people.”

The civil unrest at the end of last year appeared to catch many by surprise, she says. “There’s an underlying tension between various factions here, and there’s a history of riots – it’s a way of people showing their displeasure. But it was the severity and how long it continued which was elevated. We knew there was a protest planned at Parliament, but when one of my staff said, ‘oh my God, they have just set fire to Parliament. We have to go’, I saw their faces and the activity in our office and I knew that it was more serious”.

“My husband went to pick up the kids and came to the FFA. From that hilltop location, we could see the rioting outside the Central Hospital.  When we got home that evening we didn’t leave the compound for another three days."

“There were certainly some surreal moments after the New Zealand Defence Force came in [along with other supporting nations].  Suddenly the place we had been living had become “operational”.  I spent one Sunday morning searching for as many cooking pots as I could acquire (six pots, after visiting seven shops).  It was positively enjoyable to support local vendors buying up bananas, watermelon and other freshers for 60-odd soldiers stuck on rat packs; I did my best to support the contingent to understand what had become our home over almost two years.  It was a really unusual way to finish the posting.”

She says the FFA secondment was a great experience in a ‘whanau’ atmosphere. “One of the things I have always loved about the Defence Force is that it feels like a family. There’s a sense of, we are all in this together, whether you are in uniform or civilian clothing. The FFA has that same feel, of being part of a committed family, who celebrate together when it’s good, and support each other through challenging times. People truly care for their colleagues, and it was really touching. It made my secondment, and our family’s adventure pretty special.”