January 06, 2006

By Jessica Chapman
The Kaselehlie Press

With wide smiles, stranded Micronesia Longline Fishing Corporation fishermen left the vessels they had been residing on, some for more than two years, and headed home to Indonesia in recent weeks. Wayan Gara, the men's agent in Bali, paid their airfare. The men departed Pohnpei in two groups: 10 on December 22 and 10 on December 29. Others left earlier through personal means.

A generous outpouring from the Pohnpei community ensured no man left the island empty-handed. According to Fabian Nimea, MLFC's court-appointed trustee, various donations of cash, gifts, food and other provisions came from FSM President Joseph Urusemal, Congress, Micronesia Red Cross, the College of Micronesia and Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church.

The Our Lady of Mercy choir spent two weeks in early December Christmas caroling around the island to raise money for the fishermen. In total, the community raised thousands of dollars for the men. The church presented gifts to the fishermen at the bell tower in Pohnpei on December 17. Six men chose to stay for various reasons, mainly due either to personal connections on the island or anticipation of future work with the insolvent corporation. At least one plans to remain on the vessels as a security measure.

The men were living on several of MLFC's 11 vessels outside Kolonia, without regular pay since June 2004. The corporation discontinued its operations and filed for bankruptcy last April. It left about $5.8 million unpaid on a government loan and approximately $500,000 in additional debt to various creditors, including Gara.

Gara spent about a week in Pohnpei in early December attempting to seek a resolution to the financial distress MLFC's bankruptcy has caused him, to no avail. He claims MLFC owes him approximately $200,000 in back wages and fees. Though he was unable to secure compensation, he pursued arrangements for the the seamen to return to their homes. Prior to their departure, each man signed an affidavit documenting the debt MLFC still owes them. Most of them are owed between $2-3,000.

In the event of successful reorganization and generation of income MLFC says it will compensate the men for their lost wages. "It is our obligation," acknowledged Nimea. Unfortunately, MLFC assumes financial responsibility only through last March, when the corporation's fishing operations officially stopped.

Therefore, even if the men are compensated, they will still have lost nine months of wages. Most of the men said their families and friends were unaware of their impending arrival. Many said they planned to seek employment upon their return. Sabino Dacosta, 35, said he will seek work in his home town of Denpasar. He said he would like to pursue a job in electronics. He expressed reluctance about the possibility of fishing again. MLFC bankruptcy proceedings remain ongoing.