Coast Guardsmen patrol high seas near Japan for illegal fishing

By LEON COOK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 21, 2018

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The U.S. Coast Guard recently deployed to northeast Japan as part of a multinational effort to help curb illegal fishing.

Since 2005, the six members of the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum — Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, Canada and the United States — have cooperated in Operation North Pacific Guard, a large-scale search of the northern Pacific for illegal and unregulated fishing boats.

Stars and Stripes flew with the Coast Guard during a mission last week on an HC-130H maritime patrol aircraft out of Misawa. The plane and its crew of nine deployed there from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska.

“We’re patrolling a grid point near Japan … and we’ll fly back and forth identifying every boat we see,” Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Joshua Rigterink said during the mission June 14.

The Coast Guardsmen enforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but their priority is illegal high-seas drift netting, he said.

Drift nets – secured by floats near the surface and weights at the bottom to hang vertically – used to be made of biodegradable material such as hemp, with mesh large enough for many sea creatures to escape.

But when large-scale commercial drift-net fishing began in the 1950s, manufacturers switched to synthetic materials to meet the heightened demand, and an ecological disaster was born.

Synthetic nets can stretch up to 40 miles, according to briefing documents for Operation North Pacific Guard.

Increased size and smaller mesh resulted in more bycatch — or nontargeted species — than the older nets. Drift nets trap whatever they encounter, including sharks, dolphins, whales, sea turtles and birds. They’re nearly invisible, and lost nets are carried on ocean currents ensnaring fish indefinitely.

In 1992, the United Nations banned drift nets longer than 2.5km, but some fishermen still use them, and even legal nets can go adrift.

During last week’s patrol, the Coast Guardsmen were well placed to spot any illegal nets as they stared down at a vast expanse of ocean.

“They use us for this mission because we’re extremely good at finding things in the ocean,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Sahela Finley, a tactical systems operator.

Hawaii-based Coast Guardsmen on the cutter Morgenthau, in cooperation with Chinese observers and tipped off by Canadian and Japanese spotter aircraft, apprehended a Chinese-flagged vessel fishing with a 3.3-km drift net, 800 meters longer than allowed by the UN resolution, during Operation North Pacific Guard 2014. But most missions come up empty-handed.

Rigterink and Finley were the eyes of the aircraft. Cruising at 7,500 feet, surface-search radar allowed them to find objects despite low-lying cloud from a recent typhoon.

There were many blips on the radar, most with a corresponding signal from an Automatic Identification System, or AIS, broadcasting each vessel’s identity, size, position, course and speed.

“We definitely look for radar contacts that aren’t on AIS,” Rigterink said. “It’s not mandatory, but it’s nearly universal so it’s suspicious if a ship isn’t using it … especially if our radar says it’s a large contact.”

During the search, crew members bantered and talked about the in-flight meal they’d prepare on an electric griddle and crockpot. But they were all business once they found a large radar contact not broadcasting on AIS.

Rigterink talked the pilot onto the target as the aircraft descended. At 300 feet, the plane was finally below the cloud ceiling, and Finley zoomed in on the target vessel using a camera mounted under the aircraft.

The ocean seemed alarmingly near and the lifejackets distressingly distant as the plane circled lower than some roller coasters. The crew recorded video and snapped photos of the ship below from many angles.

The Chinese-flagged ship, which turned its AIS on as the Coast Guardsmen drew near, wasn’t acting strangely. Neither did it display signs of drift-net fishing, such as net bins, tubes and spreaders. However, the name on the hull and the name on the ship’s superstructure didn’t match.

“I don’t know what they’re up to, but that’s got to be a violation of something,” a crewmember said as the plane ascended.

Photos showing both names, the vessel’s position, course, speed, and other relevant information were to be included in a mission report.

As the flight went on, experienced crewmen quizzed junior members on things such as how much overlapping radar coverage they’d get based on altitude and search pattern.

Two more vessels warranted further investigation, but the crew didn’t find any illegal activity and headed back to Misawa.

During the return, they chatted about the places near Misawa they’d go that evening. Even after being stuck with each other all day in a metal tube, the close-knit crew stick together off-duty.

Finding a drift net is uncommon, but Coast Guardsmen don’t seem to mind. The next day they’d search a different patch of ocean, and still another the day after. To them, their place is in the air.

Twitter: @LeonCook12


U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Tommy Burns, navigator aboard an HC-130H search-and-rescue aircraft, checks the aircraft's position during a patrol flight in search of illegal fishing near Japan's eastern coast on June 14, 2018.