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Feature Commentary: A ship, a crew, the sea and a $7 billion fishery

U.S. Coast Guard photos and story by Chief Petty Officer Sara Mooers

The sea and sky are dark. One fades into the other. The bright deck lights of a foreign fishing boat are the only horizon reference. Roughly 70-feet in length, at two miles away, the boat appears as a dot. “Set LE Phase 1,” rings out over the 1MC, the ship’s on board intercom system.
I’m aboard the mighty warship Sequoia, a 225-foot seagoing buoy tender homeported in Apra Harbor, Guam – America’s westernmost territory. Out in the Philippine Sea, standing on the buoy deck I can feel the ship roll gently under my feet as we transit toward the fishing boat.
It’s 2000 hours, the sun has long since set, but I can still feel residual heat from the metal decks and bulkheads of the ship radiate up at me. The moist sea air wraps around me in a wet bear hug and I can feel my body armor secured over my t-shirt cling to me. Droplets of sweat escape from my hairline under my helmet. We’ve been over the plan, briefed the evolution, attempted to hail the vessel master in Mandarin and English, done our risk analysis to assess complexity and overall safety and now it’s time to go.

The sound of the water is interrupted by the unmistakable mechanical hums and chirps of outboard engines. The cutter’s small boat, piloted by a boatswain’s mate, comes alongside the buoy deck prepared to take us aboard and transport us to the fishing boat.

One by one the boarding team goes over the side: four Coast Guard members and an Australian Fisheries Management Authority officer; Lydia Woodhouse. The ship is running nearly dark. A faint red glow can be seen on the bridge. The running lights of the small boat wink at me red and green. It’s my turn. Senior Chief Petty Officer Ryan Petty, who runs the deck force, stands next to the Jacob’s ladder. A flashlight in his hand with a red lens lights the flat orange rungs of the ladder as they knock against the black hull and leads to the water and the small boat more than 10 feet below.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Brett Malone, a damage controlman and boarding team member, part of a joint boarding team from the buoy tender USCGC Sequoia (WLB-215) commence a horseshoe around the longline fishing vessel Chi Chih Ching No. 21 to conduct boarding in the Palau exclusive economic zone Sept. 5, 2016. The boardings were conducted under a U.S. Coast Guard and Palau bilateral agreement with additional support from the Marine Forces Pacific and the Australian Fisheries Management Authority.

I step gingerly onto a bitt on Sequoia’s deck just below the gunwale, adjacent to where the ladder is secured. I heave myself over the side and onto the ladder, a vice-like grip on the top of the gunwale. “Snaps, over the side!” calls Petty into his radio up to the bridge. The small boat rises and falls with the swell beneath my feet. Nearly to the bottom, the boat drops just as I let go of the ladder. The hand of a boat crewman and engineer, Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott Peterson, grabs the loop of my backpack. “Snaps in the boat,” calls Petty.

As I move to the side and take a seat on the sponson I hear “Semper Fi over the side. Semper Fi in the boat.” Lance Cpl. Brian Martin, our Mandarin Chinese speaking linguist, takes a seat next to me in his Marine Corps fatigues, bright orange lifejacket and helmet. With our team assembled, we depart from Sequoia and head toward the light on the horizon.

BLACK PEARL OF THE PACIFIC: A MUTLI-MISSION PLATFORM

Warship might seem like an extreme term for a buoy tender whose primary mission is aids to navigation and search and rescue or pollution response, but on this patrol our mission is law enforcement and more to the point, fighting illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in the region. How can fish be so important?

The Western and Central Pacific Ocean is home to the “tuna belt” and supplies about 60 percent of the global tuna supply, worth an estimated $7 billion a year. With more than 5,600 fishing vessels registered with the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, there are serious concerns about the sustainability of struggling fish stocks. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing presents a significant threat to the health of the fish and the multi-national fishing fleets that operate in the region.

The boats we are boarding at this point in the patrol are on the high seas. We’ve left Guam and are now in the Philippine Sea, more than 200 miles from any shore and outside any exclusive economic zone. There are no federal, state or territorial rules here, yet lucrative and highly migratory fish stocks are present. This area is covered by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission regulations; as signatories to the WCPFC convention many Pacific nations have agreed to follow a set of prescribed rules regulating how the resource is harvested on the high seas. These rules, called conservation management measures, dictate how fishing vessels should be marked for easy identification by enforcement agencies, what and how fishermen should be logging their catch to track the overall removal of fish from the sea, and what methods fishermen must use to prevent excessive shark or turtle fishing to name a few. These conservation management measures constrain fishers from landing an endless catch with the ultimate goal to establish long term health, sustainability and shared profitability of the fish stocks.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing harvests fish stocks without regard to any size, catch limits, bycatch or any regulation. It is largely undocumented and undermines conservation and allocation efforts in capture rates and management of the fisheries. Akin to poaching, the practice hinges on the perception that fishermen, with a minimum of effort and resources put into fishing, can reap larger rewards than by fishing legally.

“Sustainable development is the pathway to the future we want for all. It offers a framework to generate economic growth, achieve social justice, exercise environmental stewardship and strengthen governance,” said Ban Ki-moon, chairman of the U.N. General Assembly.

According to the Forum Fisheries Agency, IUU fishing is prevalent in the Western and Central Pacific region because there is access to over 30 million square kilometers of species-rich EEZ waters (waters within 200 nautical miles of land) before even consider the high seas pockets beyond 200 nautical miles, and the countries which make up the area are generally categorized as developing, often with smaller economies and correspondingly small maritime patrol forces. Australia and New Zealand are exceptions to this definition and strong partners in the effort to combat IUU fishing. This environment provides IUU fishermen with a real opportunity to illegally harvest fish and turn a profit with a low chance of being caught.

“The threat that IUU fishing poses to the sustainability of global fish stocks hurts both developed and developing nations, because fish are a common resource. That’s why the U.S. Coast Guard works closely with our Pacific Island nation partners and organizations like the FFA and AFMA to enforce regulations in the remote areas of the high seas and EEZs of our partner nations,” said Lt. Cmdr. W. Christian Adams, Sequoia’s commanding officer.

HIGH SEAS FISHERY BOARDINGS

As we approach the fishing boat we can see the crew on deck, their eyes wide. They’ve just finished setting a long line and have cleaned up the deck. We commence our ‘horseshoe’ of the vessel. We were unable to raise the master of the vessel on the radio prior to approach, but now alongside he beckons us aboard.

As the bow of the small boat nears the access point on the vessel, the boarding team prepares and quickly transfers to the vessel. They direct the crew forward as two boarding team members break away and do an initial safety sweep of the vessel and its spaces looking for any safety or security concerns. With that sweep complete, I board the vessel. I’m greeted by a wet deck and green flexible plastic mats underfoot. While largely clean the occasional silverfish or cockroach darts past. The smell of salt and fish permeates the air. The boarding officer and linguist walk up five steps into a tight cabin with the master of the vessel and begin going over paperwork.

They examine and document the electronics and look at the vessel and the captain’s licenses. He also presents passports for the crew. The boarding team and officer Woodhouse begin to look through the holds. As is common with these vessels the ship has a mix of frozen holds and brine tanks. The crew of the vessel uses a boat hook to hoist up recent catch in the brine tank. A large tuna breaks the surface of the opaque greenish water. The huge fish glistens blue and silver under the deck lights. The boarding team advances from hold to hold, checking them all. The very forward hold has groceries, the brine tanks more fish. I look up and can see through the windows of the cabin, Martin is translating cards and documents in Mandarin for the boarding officer.

Petty Officer 3rd Class John Lietaert, a boarding team member and engineer, opens the freezer hold doors situated under the cabin. I enter the freezer hold and am greeted by an icy blast of cold air. A light frost clings to the metal racks on either side. Tuna, headed and gutted, rest on the racks brushed with frost. Behind me are a few sharks, fins tied to the carcasses. It is illegal to possess only the fins.

“The strength of the WCPFC is that it allows member states to enforce regulations against all registered vessels. Without that, we would not be able to inspect conservation management measures on foreign-flagged fishing vessels, and IUU fishing would be even more widespread,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey West, Sequoia’s executive officer. “These spot checks at sea help keep everyone honest and committed to a sustainable future.”

We record our findings and move to the stern of the vessel. Baskets woven out of long-line adorn the rear deck where carefully placed hooks and equipment wait for use. We check the rear hold and find a few more tuna and a marlin. All these findings are presented to the boarding officer who checks them against the captain’s catch log.

Meanwhile, our AFMA shiprider discusses conditions aboard the vessel with the crew. This crew is Indonesian. Officer Woodhouse, is from Darwin in the northern territory of Australia, but she learned Indonesian as a child working alongside her father at sailboat races. This crew is happy; they have rice three times a day with fish and vegetables. They said they are paid well and although they may spend months aboard the vessel they are pleased to send money home to their families and say they are paid better fishing than they would be in jobs back in Indonesia.

FISH FOR THE FUTURE

Once the report of the boarding is filled out the Coast Guard keeps a copy, they provide a copy to the master of the vessel and also forward a copy to the flag state of the vessel for action and the WCPFC concurrently. This ensures the vessel’s flag state is notified of a Coast Guard boarding and in this instance, notifies them of potential violations that were discovered. Ultimately it is the flag state’s responsibility to act on the violations and impose any fines or other measures.

Still, fines imposed by a vessel’s flag state may not be enough to prevent IUU in an environment with limited enforcement resources and high demand for product. The World Bank’s 2013 report via the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says we can expect to feed a global population of more than 9 billion by 2050.

Further it states, “A relatively unappreciated, yet promising, fact is that fish can play a major role in satisfying the palates of the world’s growing middle income group while also meeting the food security needs of the poorest. Already, fish represents 16 percent of all animal protein consumed globally, and this proportion of the world’s food basket is likely to increase as consumers with rising incomes seek higher-value seafood and as aquaculture steps up to meet increasing demand.”

In a 2013 WCPFC report, the Marine Resources Assessment Group estimated 21 to 46 percent of the fish species harvested in the Western and Central Pacific are captured via IUU fishing. This represents up to a $1.5 billion dollar annual loss in revenue for the region. Worldwide, MRAG suggests the proportion of specifically IUU tuna captured hovers around 10 percent due to small amounts of unreported fishing which are generally associated with large volume catches, noted in their 2008 report “Global Extent of Illegal Fishing”.

It for this reason, to have fish for the future, that the Coast Guard’s continued patrols of the Pacific with support from the U.S. Navy and our partner nations are so critical.

“We are helping to ensure the continued sustainability of these nations’ most valuable natural resource. Island nations like Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia have limited maritime law enforcement resources; embarking shipriders from various partner countries enables robust law enforcement in the most remote corners of their EEZs,” said Lt. j.g. Charles Totten, Sequoia’s operations officer.

In addition to patrols by Coast Guard cutters with embarked shipriders, the Coast Guard operates a combined effort with the U.S. Navy dubbed the Oceania Maritime Security Initiative or OMSI within the Pacific region. Using U.S. Navy surface assets which routinely transit the area as a platform of opportunity, Coast Guard personnel deployed aboard query and board fishing vessels in the region. The goal of this initiative is to project a U.S. presence in the area with respect to theater security cooperation, fisheries enforcement, as well as to increase interoperability between both military services. This operation represents a changing dynamic in modern maritime warfare and strategy. The first deployment of Coast Guard personnel to warships for this purpose occurred in 2009 and continues on average once a quarter to this day.

STEWARDSHIP AND THE CONTINUING MISSION

It’s been nearly three hours since we set LE Phase 1 aboard Sequoia to begin this process and we’re now boarding complete. As I sit on the rail of the ship I can see squid grab the small fish attracted to the lights of the fishing vessel. They dart at high speed leaving only a shower of silvery scales as evidence of their catch. The fishermen smile when they notice me watching the squid intently and motion that they taste good.

Woodhouse has taught me to say good bye, thank you and fish well in Indonesian. As the boarding officer hands over the boarding report form I call, “Selamat tinggal, terima kasih, ikan baik!” They smile and wave good bye. We load up into the small boat and return to Sequoia.

All told we’ll patrol more than 3,970 miles over 25 days and conduct 14 at-sea boardings. Our efforts resulted in the reporting of 11 potential WCPFC violations to the applicable flag states for further investigation and enforcement. In a few months, the crew will do it again, to ensure fish for the future.

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