As COVID-19 restrictions gradually lift, the Coast Guard this year is making a push to step up engagement in the Pacific islands as it continues efforts to combat illegal fishing.
Small Pacific island nations with limited medical resources quickly closed off their borders when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in 2020. Delivering vaccines across the region's far-flung islands proved challenging, and many have begun to reopen to visitors only recently.
"We still patrolled and we still did information sharing, " said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jessica McCollum, who oversees fishery enforcement operations for the Coast Guard's Oahu-headquartered District 14. "We just couldn't do a lot of (operations ) where the crew gets off and engages with locals, " she said.
But while some forms of partnership were scaled back in 2020, fishing operations weren't. In the summer of 2020 a massive fleet of Chinese fishing vessels descended on the Galapagos Islands and clashed with the Ecuadorean Coast Guard. Later that year the U.S. Coast Guard's then-commandant Adm. Karl Schultz wrote that illegal fishing had "replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat, " decimating food sources and economic prospects for island and coastal communities that depend on healthy fish stocks.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (or IUU, as maritime professionals and policymakers call it) is rampant. It is estimated that 1 in every 5 fish caught around the world is caught illegally. Almost 90% of global fisheries are now considered depleted.
"What happens with the resources here matters globally, " said District 14 staff lawyer Cmdr. Tamara Wallen, who helps navigate the murky legal challenges of actually going after IUU fishing operations across the vast blue Pacific. "When you talk about illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the name in and of itself indicates how little we know about what's not being reported from being taken."
Most Pacific island countries are small in terms of land mass, but many have large maritime territories known as exclusive economic zones, or EEZs, that can encompass vast stretches of ocean. Fishing licenses are a major source of income for island countries, but fishing operations without a license or that go above their catch limit threaten ecosystems and fish stocks that the islands depend on.
For island countries that might lack navies or coast guards of their own, actually enforcing regulations or even patrolling their own waters is a challenge. "A lot of these nations, they have their authorities and their laws, but they definitely don't have the capability or capacity to get out there in their waters, " said Wallen.
The U.S. Coast Guard has the ability to operate in the EEZs of Pacific island nations through "ship rider " agreements, which bring local law enforcement and regulatory officials aboard American cutters. The ship riders pick out vessels to board and lead the operations while the American Coast Guardsmen follow their lead.
"We're really there to just kind of provide the muscle and the ride, " said McCollum. "A lot of these places don't necessarily have larger vessels that can get out to patrol their whole EEZ, so we're their taxi to get out there."
But demand is high. Wallen said Fiji was the first country in the region to request resumption of ship rider operations as it rolled back restrictions. When Samoa had problems with its one patrol boat, it asked for American help. Though the Coast Guard has stepped up its presence, recently commissioning three new Fast Response Cutters in Guam to increase its reach, District 14 has only 10 cutters to conduct operations across Oceania.
The Federated States of Micronesia signed an agreement with the United States that gives U.S. Coast Guard cutters authority to enforce the country's laws while transiting through its waters without a ship rider on board. Wallen explained that "because they have one of the largest exclusive economic zones in the area and we're transiting all over Oceania ... sometimes we don't have the time to go and pick up a ship rider, bring them out to do enforcement and take them back in."
But FSM officials still want to do ship rider operations and have as recently as November. "People want more. We don't have more to give all the time, " said Wallen. "But this year our goal is to exercise 100 % of our 11 bilateral ship rider agreements."
France and Australia also have stepped up efforts to work with Pacific island nations, particularly in the South Pacific. But migratory tuna, the main stock that fishermen are chasing and a staple food for many island communities, often make their way into the high seas where enforcement—and even determining what is legal—has its own series of challenges.
The U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies have the legal power to board vessels and conduct inspections under the authority of the international Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, based in the FSM.
"People get frustrated with it because it takes extra time, " said McCollum. "Because it's outside of an EEZ on the high seas, it means it's international. So you're going to have to take more steps and more countries that are looking at it."
Inspectors can issue fines to vessels violating internationally agreed-upon fishing practices and report them to the countries to which the ship is registered. In extreme cases a vessel can be flagged to an online registry, and McCollum said "they're an immediate target for boarding when they're found."
Ports are supposed to turn them away, and they're not supposed to be able to unload their catch, but enforcing that is easier said than done. Many ports are notorious for corruption, with officials either happy to take bribes or simply unable to access up-to-date information on what's coming in and going out.
"I think, in this region, that not every country has the moral turpitude. ... They don't always enforce fishing practices or sustainable fishing practices on their entire fleet. And obviously, some countries have larger fleets than others, " Wallen said.
By far, the world's largest fishing fleet is China's. Beijing has lavished its fleets with generous subsidies, allowing its vessels to sail farther, operate longer and haul much larger quantities of fish than those from other countries. China, which imports much of its food to feed its large population, has long relied on seafood as a key source of protein. But as it has depleted fisheries in its coastal waters, Chinese fishing vessels have pushed into other waters.
But Chinese-flagged vessels aren't alone in flouting regulations or adopting aggressive tactics. Competition over dwindling fish stocks has led to bitter rivalries and sometimes violence between fishermen around the world. In February 2020 a Taiwanese-flagged vessel attacked a Honolulu longliner in waters just outside of Hawaii's EEZ, prompting the Honolulu-based Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council to write a letter to the U.S. State Department calling on it to "continue to follow up on complaints of assault by foreign fishing vessels on the Hawaii-based U.S. longline fishery and take appropriate diplomatic actions."
In 2022, leaders of the United States, Australia, Japan and India, the four countries known as "the Quad, " signed an agreement to launch the with the goal of shining a light on illegal fishing and "dark shipping." The agreement has an ambitious vision of increased monitoring of potential crime at sea and information sharing, with satellites expected to play a key role.
The Coast Guard has been working to improve its surveillance and communication capabilities. Its large National Security Cutters carry ScanEagle drones, which were used during patrols in 2020 to observe the impact of COVID-19 on the fishing industry in the Pacific. In 2022 at Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point, the service completed its. The new planes have live-feed cameras that can share footage with officials around the globe in real time.
For senior policymakers the increased interest in fishing boats isn't just about fish. In 2020 the leaders of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard wrote that China "deploys a multilayered fleet " that includes "naval auxiliaries disguised as civilian vessels." These so-called maritime militias have been used to conduct surveillance missions in support of China's conventional navy and to stake out disputed territories in the South China Sea.
But Wallen, who previously worked on fishery enforcement in Alaska where she said she worked closely with Russian officials on issues in the Bering Strait, said, "I think issues like fisheries and the environment transcend geopolitical issues at times. ... Just to get anyone to start saying 'IUU, ' it's exciting to me that people care more about it."
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