Coast Guard puts 2 new environmental focused units on Oahu
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser October 15, 2023
HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — The Coast Guard is expanding its engagement in the Pacific and beyond to tackle illegal fishing and respond to environmental disasters.
Its new Indo-Pacific Marine Environmental Response Regional Activity Center and the Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Center of Expertise will be key in the battle as the Coast Guard plays an increasingly prominent role in American geopolitical strategy. In the White House’s 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy, it is the only military service specifically named, calling for bolstering its presence and working more with other countries.
At the ribbon-cutting on Wednesday for the new centers on Ford Island, Vice Adm. Andrew Tiongson, the California-based commander for Coast Guard Pacific Area, told Coast Guardsmen that his task is nothing new to their service, “but today there is greater demand for your Coast Guard than ever before ... (these new units ) strategically positioned here in Hawaii will fulfill exactly what the Indo-Pacific strategy directs.”
Tiongson told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that opening the new offices made him think about the recent sinking of the oil tanker MT Princess Empress in February that spilled 260, 000 gallons of industrial fuel in the Philippines.
The disaster response brought in ships from American, Japanese and South Korean coast guards along with experts from all three countries to help Philippine authorities clean up the toxic mess. He said that in situations like that, gathering the right team of experts is critical.
“We do that now, but we do that on an ad-hoc basis,“ Tiongson said. “Now we’re talking about having a dedicated force that talks about that, can do that, or can direct to the right people to have that done ... you have a venue to do those kinds of things and the people and the expertise that are here.”
He said placing them in the middle of the Pacific in Hawaii was no afterthought. The Coast Guard envisions bringing together experts from across the U.S. as well as countries around the world to the new centers on Ford Island, which operate out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center.
“A lot of our partners have some great methods on how they do things, (so let’s) see and learn from each other so that we can be better together at maritime governance,“ Tiongson said.
The ocean plays a central role in the modern global economy; the majority of international trade travels on merchant vessels hauling everything from food and fertilizer to oil and gas.
But the ocean is also an infamously lawless place. Transnational criminal groups regularly take to the sea to move black market goods and evade the law. And in both coastal and international waters, many ostensibly legitimate enterprises regularly flout safety, labor and environmental regulations—often at catastrophic risk to both human and ocean life.
Today environmental concerns are increasingly becoming national security concerns. Threats from climate change have many Pacific Island nations worried about their survival. Tiongson said that “small low-lying islands, they’re worried about sea level rise, they’re worried about droughts, they’re getting pummeled by increasing typhoons.”
Indo-Pacific Marine Environmental Response Regional Activity Center, or “the RAC,“ as coasties have begun calling it, is aimed at tackling both natural and human-made disasters.
Rear Adm. Jo-Ann Burdian, the Coast Guard’s Assistant Commandant for Response Policy in Washington, D.C., who played a key role in getting the two new units established in Hawaii, said that the RAC can help “understand the needs of partners and help build capacity to respond to oil spills as we increase human activity on water.”
As for the Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Center of Expertise, Tiongson said he hopes it “will act as the international engagement center for combating IUU fishing throughout the world.”
In 2020 the Coast Guard declared that IUU fishing had surpassed piracy as the greatest global security threat on the high seas. The service warned that rampant overfishing has already caused environmental and economic devastation to some coastal communities that depend on fishing for food and employment.
An estimated 80% of the world’s fish stocks are nearly depleted. Competition over dwindling fish stocks around the world has led to violence at sea between fishermen that has at times escalated to diplomatic spats.
Disputes over fishing rights in the South China Sea, once one of the world’s most plentiful fisheries, has become especially fierce. China, which has the world’s largest fishing fleet, has been accused of using a mix of its naval forces and “maritime militias“ to stake out disputed fishing grounds and force out fishermen from the Philippines and Vietnam — sometimes violently.
As East Asian countries grow in population, seafood is often a critical source of protein, especially in coastal communities. But as fishermen find it harder to fish at home, many are traveling farther and joining “distance fishing fleets“ around the globe.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed off Hawaii’s shores, where in recent years some Hawaii fishermen have reported an increase in sightings of foreign industrial vessels around the islands and occasional aggressive interactions.
In March 2020 the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council in Hono lulu sent a letter to the U.S. State Department after a violent encounter between a Taiwanese vessel and a Honolulu longliner, demanding officials “follow up on complaints of assault by foreign fishing vessels on the Hawaii-based U.S. longline fishery and take appropriate diplomatic actions.”
But while the sea can be a lawless and sometimes dangerous place, it’s also not without its own code.
In March, when Honolulu-based fishing longliner Sea Smile sank 545 miles southwest of Hawaii at night, Taiwanese fishing vessel Ying Rong No. 638 heeded a request for help from the Coast Guard to aid the crew. By midnight the Taiwanese vessel had successfully found and rescued all six of the Honolulu crew.
“All of us rely upon the ocean for our prosperity, for our security,“ Burdian said. “What we owe in return is this work to build the resilience of our oceans, to defend this domain that gives us so, so much.” (c)2023 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
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