Dr Nuttall leads a small team researching the potential for Pacific Island countries to transition to more environmentally friendly sea transport options. He says regional aid partners should direct renewable energy funding towards sustainable marine transport. He claims expensive fuel costs often lead to shortcuts in safety.
"Up here in the Pacific, one of our largest burners of fossil fuel is maritime, but all the money that we have put up so far is going into electricity…If we'd diverted some of that funding into better generation shipping we might not have some of the problems we currently have," Dr Nuttall said.
Intra-island shipping is an economically marginal activity in the Pacific, with few ship operators running a profit, he said.
"You end up with old boats, really poorly maintained, poorly qualified seamen, no money for maintenance programmes, huge demand for travel and people trying to meet that need.”
However, Maritime Cook Islands chief executive officer Glenn Armstrong says solar power and maritime safety are “not related”.
“Everyone always thinks money should be spent on their pet-projects and not on something else.”
Armstrong says Cook Islands vessels are surveyed every year and their certificates are annually endorsed.
“We also conduct Flag State Inspections at least once a year...These Flag State Inspections are designed to ensure that vessels continue to be maintained and operated in compliance with international requirements.
“There is some discretion exercised by the secretary of transport and the minister in respect of some of these standards, as the vessels are on domestic voyages and therefore the Cook Islands can establish their own standards.
“The main area in which this happens is establishing the number of passengers that can be carried by a particular vessel on a particular voyage.”
Armstrong admits operating an intra-island shipping service is difficult. He says high fuel prices are just “one of many problems” that service providers face.
The biggest obstacles, says Armstrong, are the long distances between islands and the fact that they are small markets economies.
“Newer more efficient ships might burn less fuel, but the capital cost is prohibitive for our local operators. They would never get a return on their investment.”
Shipping operator Tapi Taio says the only way intra-island shipping services can survive is if subsidies continue to be granted.
“They will have to give subsidies for these ships to be able to go and take these cargoes around these islands, to be viable in the business,” says Taio.
The government confirmed the availability of a shipping subsidy for vessels servicing the northern group in April.
The first subsidised voyage left Rarotonga on April 12, with Taio Shipping vessel Maungaroa II sailing to the islands of Manihiki, Rakahanga and Penryhn.
Under the conditions of the subsidy, shipping suppliers must depart within three days of the agreed date of departure, weather permitting, but Taio says there is no point in sailing with insufficient cargo.
“Even with the subsidy, it would still cost me a lot of money for fuel. It’s a joke. If the government wants ships to sail whether or not they have any cargo, they should be paying 100 per cent of the costs, not 40 per cent.”