USCG: Operating Forward in the Pacific


Guam – Nations have set their sights on the South Pacific for many reasons, but the abundance of fish is one worth noting. The Central and South Pacific are among the world’s most productive fisheries, in contrast to many others around the world having faced human consumption to the brink of eradication. The need to sustain a growing population in Asia, the immense wealth to be found in the sea and the positioning of nations are just a few catalysts pushing fishing fleets farther afield into the protected waters of Pacific island nations.

These illegal fishing operations are a direct threat to the nations that have limited law enforcement resources. However, this threat is being met cooperatively with the U.S. Coast Guard’s most advanced capabilities to ensure a persistent presence and deterrence across the South Pacific.

On April 5, 2012 the Coast Guard’s newest deterrent departed Honolulu and headed south to areas frequented by fishing fleets. At 418 feet long, the Coast Guard Cutter Waesche acts as a formidable front line command center to combat illegal fishing and a supporting asset to partners across the Pacific with similar intentions of protecting the fishery resource. The Waesche is the second National Security Cutter put to sea and its class is set to replace the aging 378-foot Hamilton class High Endurance Cutters. It is faster, has greater endurance, more amenities and greater aerial reach thanks to its ability to carry two MH-65 Dolphin helicopters, and in the future, unmanned aerial vehicles.

This was Waesche’s first mission to the Pacific to take part in an ongoing Coast Guard effort focused on protecting fish.

The Coast Guard has conducted numerous patrols in the past as part of an effort to help protect the exclusive economic zones of various Pacific island nations. These zones extend approximately 230 miles from land into the sea. This effort also protects endangered pelagic fish species, creates and maintains stability in the region and helps build better relations throughout the Pacific. The Coast Guard is the largest U.S. federal maritime law enforcement presence in the Pacific and at the forefront of what has been named Operation Persistent Presence. It is a maritime law enforcement effort of maintaining constant vigilance on the EEZ’s and fishing grounds to ensure fishermen follow the regulations set forth by the various governments.  Pelagic fish species such as tuna, scombridae, sail fish and marlins populate this expanse, known as “The Tuna Belt” which contains nearly half of the world’s tuna supply.  These species are highly migratory; making them an international resource with widespread negative impacts, should they be overfished. In order to ensure fishermen are adhering to the laws, a concerted effort has to be made, and that requires physically boarding vessels at sea. For the Coast Guard, finding fishing boats to board means following the fish.

While on patrol, the crew of the Waesche looks for contacts on the radar and attempts to identify any ships prime for boarding. Several different factors determine which vessel will be boarded and for what reasons. If a captain and crew have a history or track record of violations, they are more likely to be boarded when they are found. If a vessel has previously been boarded and was in compliance, they become a lower risk and less likely to become a target. Capt. Kelly Hatfield, commanding officer of the Waesche equated the cutter’s role to that of a “cop walking the beat.” The intent is to maintain a presence on the water to ensure fishermen adhere to the rules and regulations that have been put in place. These regulations are intended to provide a set of rules that govern how much fish can be taken and how, particularly tuna. The end intent is to maintain healthy fish stocks. Hatfield noted that sustainable harvests allow fish populations to reproduce thereby maintaining a healthy fishery. Consequently, the tuna industry in the Pacific could be seriously affected by overfishing or illegal fishing, Hatfield added.

Although safety and regulation are important, there are larger implications to the Pacific should fish stocks decline due to mismanagement or illegal consumption. Many Pacific island nations that rely on these stocks may be put in danger economically should fish stocks fall, which could later lead to a societal collapse, Hatfield noted. Island nations, such as the Republic of Nauru, rely heavily on the fishery and the selling of fishing licenses.

Commissioner Richard Britten, of the Nauru Police Force, explained that overfishing and depleted fish stocks would cause hardship to the Nauruan community on the basis that fish are an essential food source for all of Nauru. The issuing of fishing licenses is also a major source of income to the nation, so to deplete fish stocks not only harms the economy, but also impacts a major source of food. Species that are essential to Nauru’s food stock include those species targeted by illegal and legal fishing.

The management of fishing licenses for these species ensures a sustainable stock of fish is maintained, Britten added. Illegal fishing or overfishing means that records are not maintained and depletion of stocks will occur very quickly. Fish is a major source of food and income to the island, therefore overfishing cold lead people to seek out other means for a sustainable future. This could mean an increase in crime, organized crime infiltrations, and the establishment of criminal gangs offshore, Britten added. For this reason the U.S. has a vested interest in assisting Nauru with fisheries enforcement conducted through bilateral agreements. This means that their fisheries law enforcement officials are able to work cooperatively with the Coast Guard. Many island nations have limited personnel or capabilities to fully enforce their nation’s laws.

Coast Guard cutters provide platforms from which the law enforcement officer, or officers, can patrol their nation’s waters under a bilateral agreement. The U.S., in its effort to assist the various island nations within the Pacific, is allowing international ship riders to travel aboard Coast Guard cutters during patrols within foreign waters and take part in enforcement.

And what seems like an issue for small nations with limited resources really is an issue for all nations in the Pacific threatened by overfishing. The U.S. EEZ contained in the 14th Coast Guard District represents 43 percent of the entire U.S. EEZ.  The U.S. has eight non-contiguous EEZ’s in the Pacific that require oversight, which is challenging due to significant distance between the zones. But the concerns of all nations remain the same, which is one reason for the partnering. Lt. Samuel Turner, from the Royal New Zealand Navy, was aboard the Waesche to observe just how the Coast Guard conducts business. Turner explained that his country has seen increased attempts by fishermen to extract the natural resources from New Zealand waters. With the fifth-largest EEZ in the world, Turner noted that New Zealand is prone to having foreign-flagged vessels either fish illegally in their waters or fish along the border. Overfishing their own stocks is a driving factor in their illegal activities.

The International Shiprider program, which enables partner nations to ride Coast Guard cutters, offers crewmembers and riders the opportunity to share knowledge.

For Turner, it was a chance to reflect on how the Royal New Zealand Navy conducts fisheries in comparison to the Coast Guard. To help prevent illegal fishing or incursions into New Zealand waters, Turner explained that New Zealand uses regular P-3K Orion aircraft patrol flights, conducted by the Royal New Zealand Air Force and monitoring of the fishing fleet by the Ministry of Fisheries to deter unauthorized fishermen. Turner added that a goal of his nation’s enforcement program is to have fisheries observers on all of their coastal fleet. New Zealand also has a fleet of six patrol ships within their navy which will be used to conduct offshore and inshore fisheries patrols.

From a regional stabilization standpoint, the U.S. needs to be involved, Hatfield noted. He explained that other nations have interests in these island nations and their resources. If their economies collapse, then there’s the risk of other nations coming in and establishing themselves, and perhaps even taking over. By having ships like Waesche maintain a presence in the Pacific, partnerships to share intelligence and best practices, the Coast Guard is able to project a forward presence and deter illegal activities.