U.S. Coast Guard and Fiji Navy personnel stand in front of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Harriet Lane while moored in Suva, Fiji, Feb. 19, 2024.

U.S. Coast Guard and Fiji Navy personnel stand in front of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Harriet Lane while moored in Suva, Fiji, Feb. 19, 2024. (Charly Tautfest/U.S. Coast Guard)

SUVA, FIJI (Tribune News Service) — It was a bumpy ride as the boat sped through churning ocean swells toward a Chinese-flagged fishing vessel in Fijian waters.

The boat carried a mix of U.S. Coast Guardsmen and Fijian law enforcement officials operating as “ship riders“ out of the CGC Harriet Lane — the Coast Guard’s new Hawaii-based “Indo-Pacific Support Cutter“ dedicated to operations in Oceania.

The fishing vessel had clearly been at sea for a long time, its exterior covered in rust and the Chinese flag it flew from its stern blackened by diesel exhaust. As the boarding team got closer to the vessel, a pungent smell cut through the salty ocean air.

As they boarded the vessel its crew continued working, throwing out lines, bait and buoys off the back. A U.S. Marine, a Mandarin linguist on temporary duty with the Lane, talked to the captain as the rest of the team searched for potential violations such as illegal drift nets or shark-finning.

One of the Fijian officials, an officer from the Fiji Ministry of Fisheries, said that riding with the Lane and its crew was the first time in her nearly seven-year career with the agency venturing this far off shore. Limited resources regularly kept her closer to Fiji’s coastlines with little opportunity to monitor — let alone board — vessels in the deep waters where large schools of tuna run.

As illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing — or IUUF — strains global fish populations, world leaders are paying more attention to the sea. Competition over dwindling fish resources has led to international tensions, and in some cases clashes in places like the South China Sea, once one of the world’s most plentiful fishing grounds that has now been depleted almost to collapse.

To make up for the losses, large industrial fishing operations are pushing out further and further. In February 2020, a Taiwanese-flagged vessel attacked a Honolulu-­based longliner in waters just outside of Hawaii, and in the summer a massive fleet of Chinese fishing vessels descended on the Galapagos Islands and clashed with the Ecuadorean Coast Guard.

By September 2020, the U.S. Coast Guard declared that illegal and unreported fishing had surpassed piracy as the top global security threat on the high seas. The service’s then-top officer, now retired Adm. Karl Schultz, wrote that “this exploitation erodes both regional and national security, undermines maritime rules-based order, jeopardizes food access and availability, and destroys legitimate economies.”

The Coast Guard has since poured resources into fishery enforcement efforts and partnerships with countries around the world—but especially in the Pacific. In October it unveiled its new Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Center of Expertise at Ford Island. But for those on the front line of the effort, it’s proved to be a daunting task as they navigate not just the vast blue seas, but a labyrinth of bureaucracy.

“The fruits of your labor are not as tangibly seen in the moment,“ said Petty Officer 1st Class Ricky Myshrall, a 15-year Coast Guard veteran assigned to the Harriet Lane, who spent much of his career doing counter-narcotics operations. In those missions, when they seized drugs the consequences were immediate. The smugglers got arrested and the drugs got slapped on the table for a photo op.

But international fishery enforcement is much different. It revolves around reports to regional regulatory agencies and mountains of paperwork.

‘A marathon game’

Efforts to protect the Pacific’s fish stocks are becoming increasingly international. Australia, New Zealand and France have joined the U.S. in ramping up support for Pacific island countries to protect fisheries as well as police the high seas. Migratory fish, which their own fishermen try to catch, travel throughout the region with no regard to borders.

Rear Adm. Geoffrey d’Andigne, commander of France’s military forces in French Polynesia, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “The good spots for tuna fishing are not spread evenly ... the Pacific Ocean is probably where the tuna resources would be in the best health, better than the Indian Ocean and far better than the Mediterranean, for example.”

Some of the most productive fishing grounds are along the “Tuna Belt“ on the equator, which includes waters around Pacific island countries in Oceania and increasingly also off South America’s Pacific coast.

“If you’re going to the grocery store in Iowa and getting canned tuna, odds are it’s coming from the Pacific,“ said Lt. Channing Meyer, Lane’s operations officer.

Pacific island fisheries are overseen by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which is made up of several regional countries. In international high seas waters, officials from member countries have authority to board vessels. But if they find violations, that begins a whole new process.

“The hard part when it comes down to combating IUUF is the legalities behind the enforcement, because it’s fully dependent on the flag state of the vessel to enforce those laws,“ Meyer said. “If we come across a gross violation of illegal fishing, we don’t have the authority in the high seas to actually enforce laws. What we do is we have to go back through the regional fisheries management organization and they forward it to the flag state. And then the flag state has to administer that punishment.”

In extreme cases, a vessel can be added to the WCPFC’s IUU Vessel List, which makes them an immediate target for boardings and requires ports to turn them away and prevent them from unloading 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 into and going out of their harbors. It’s also incredibly difficult for a vessel to get onto the WCPFC’s list—as of February 2024 it only had four listed as illegal vessels. And if they do get listed, it’s also easy to shuffle paperwork to get authorities off their trail.

“They can change the boat name, they can re-register it, they can get a new captain and they can sell to another company,“ said Meyer. “Ultimately at the end the day, the thing that drives illegal fishing is money, just like everything else in the world. And there’s tons of money to be made, there’s a huge market for fish.”

Under WCPFC regulations, a vessel boarding cannot be longer than four hours unless authorities document a serious violation within that time. They also cannot do boardings at night.

“We don’t spend enough time going through stuff ; if they want to hide stuff from us, they easily could without us being able to see,“ said one Coast Guardsmen. “There’s a lot of hidey holes, and those freezers are cold. So unless you really bundled up and took the time to dig everything out ... at least the boats that I’ve been on, there easily could have been bags of shark fins in there somewhere, and we wouldn’t have found them.”

Several Coast Guardsmen said that it often feels like their mission is more about documenting violations than an actual enforcement mission. One told the Star-­Advertiser, “I don’t want to say that we’re not having any impact—I don’t want to put that out there, because I think that we are—but I really wish we could be doing more.”

“This is a marathon game, you’re not going to get instantaneous results out of this,“ said Lane’s captain Cmdr. Nicole Tesoniero. “I think it’s going to take a long time to start to piece together what success looks like down here.”

Language barriers The largest distant-water commercial fishing fleet belongs to China, which imports much of its food to feed its large population and has long relied on seafood as a key source of protein.

As fisheries in China’s coastal waters have collapsed, Chinese fishing vessels have pushed into other waters. To that end, Beijing has lavished its fleets with subsidies, allowing their vessels to sail farther, operate longer and haul much larger quantities of fish than those from other countries. Today China is both a major consumer and exporter of seafood.

The Coast Guard has a shortage of Mandarin linguists to communicate with Chinese-operated boats and has relied on linguists loaned from other military branches and agencies. Cpl. Jack Dennison, the Marine assigned to the Lane, calls the captains on the radio to alert them of boardings and joins the teams when they board.

Dennison said most of the time, captains are perfectly professional and even friendly. Most of them have licenses to fish in the waters of Pacific island nations legally. But some Coast Guardsmen say they wonder about the conditions of crews who work the fishing lines.

The international fishing industry has long been plagued with labor abuse and human trafficking, with some workers lured to sea only to be kept on boats well beyond their contracts and paid only a portion of what they were promised. In the worst cases, crews are kept captive as slave labor.

Seaman Alex Cloak said that when he was on teams boarding fishing vessels, he encountered crew members that “either they look confused, pissed off or like they’re almost faking a smile because somebody’s telling them to.”

He described a boat they boarded on the high seas where much of the crew was young and some appeared to be children. One was an Indonesian that Cloak said looked about 12 years old and spoke some broken English, and asked him if he was from America. Cloak recalled “just kind of like talking to him a little bit. I was like, ‘Are you happy to be out here ?’ and he didn’t really understand what I was saying.”

Tesoniero said in the future it could benefit operations to bring in linguists fluent in languages from Indonesia and the Philippines—two of the largest sources of high seas labor—in order to “to enhance our ability to communicate freely.”

“I do think that’s when you can start going after some of those other issues,“ Tesoniero said. “It’s not just the fish, it’s the human trafficking, it’s the working conditions on board. So I think that’s that next step of how do you continue to grow those missions?”

Oceanwide threat Many Pacific island countries don’t have their own navy or coast guard to protect and police their vast maritime territories.

Through ship rider agreements, authorities from Pacific Island nations can hitch a ride with U.S. Coast Guard cutters and use both their crew and equipment to help them conduct boardings and enforce their own local laws. In some cases they’re experienced officers, but for others it’s their first time even seeing large fishing boats up close.

Pacific island nations often face a dilemma ; they rely on fishing charters and licenses to foreign fishermen as a critical source of income for their the economies. They have to strike a balance between preserving and profiting from the fish in their waters.

“These cultures are very ecologically based,“ Myshrall said. “That’s your source of income, your source of food. That’s their lifeblood, that’s what their economy more or less revolves around.”

Officials in Pacific island nations have at times faced harassment and intimidation when they go after illegal fishing operations—some have ties to transnational crime networks. In 2003 Fijian police and Interpol investigated the execution-­style killing of four men found shot through the head at the Live Fish Export Fiji factory outside of Suva that was carried out by members of a Hong Kong triad over a dispute in the black market shark fin trade.

“If you’re a fisherman and you cross the red line and get into IUU fishing, then every business is good—and the more money the better it is,“ d’Andigne said. “We have been having discussions with some countries that see IUU fishing, drugs (and ) human trafficking by the same people, so it’s all mixed trafficking. And when you’re at that level it’s very organized, so it’s close to a destabilization threat.”

But amid efforts to clamp down on overfishing, demand for seafood is higher than ever. It’s estimated that today, as many as one in five fish items on grocery store aisles was caught illegally.

Those on the front line want consumers to educate themselves on where they’re getting their fish.

“If I don’t know about something, then I just take it for what it is at face value,“ Myshrall said. “So if I’m seeing fully stocked shelves, and I’m seeing all this fish and all this other stuff in the supermarket on the shelves, well then, I’m thinking ‘it’s not depleted, it’s here’ and come next week it’s still there ... if you don’t have the awareness of it, nobody’s getting behind it.”

There has been some movement. In 2019 Congress passed the Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement Act, which established the U.S. Interagency Working Group on IUU Fishing. In 2022, the working group released a five-year strategy for combating illegal fishing, which focuses on promoting sustainable fisheries management, enhancing monitoring and surveillance of fishing operations, and working to ensure only legal seafood enters trade.

Meyer said that it’s important for people in the U.S. to understand that the health of Pacific fish stocks has impacts that will be felt well beyond Pacific island communities.

“If you’re overfishing on a fish stock and you completely make a species extinct, it makes an ecosystem crumble,“ Meyer said. “Fish are dying, reefs are dying, salinity in the waters are changing, the consequences are oceanwide ... I think at the end of the day it’s going to take a village. It’s every single country in the world coming together and saying we care about our oceans, we can’t overfish and kill fish stock around the world because it’ll destroy our planet.”

(c)2024 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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