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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Oct. 1) — Taiwan and Vanuatu flagged tuna fishing boats were arrested Thursday as a big Pacific area fisheries surveillance mission wrapped up.

The Eastern Star, a Taiwanese purse seiner registered in Vanuatu, was arrested for illegal fishing operations in the Federated States of Micronesia just north of the equator Thursday, and fined US$200,000, which the vessel paid immediately to secure its release, said Lt. Cmdr. Mitch Edwards, a Royal Australian Navy advisor in the Marshall Islands.

A second Taiwan purse seiner, the Ching Feng, was also detained in Pohnpei, the capital of Micronesia, and an investigation was ongoing with no charges filed on Friday.

The arrests capped a 10-day, $15 million surveillance effort involving nine nations. Dubbed operation "Big Eye," the annual surveillance mission is "one of the best examples of cooperation in the Pacific to achieve common goals," said Pohnpei-based Australian Ambassador Corinne Tomkinson in Majuro on Friday.

Big Eye involved Australian-provided patrol boats from Palau, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Papua New Guinea, the air forces of Australia and New Zealand, U.S. Coast Guard planes and ships, and a French naval frigate to cover an estimated two million square miles of the central and western Pacific. The French participation in this operation for the first time drew praise from Tomkinson.

Although Thursday’s arrests were the only two during the 10-day operation, Edwards said patrol boats boarded 38 fishing boats to check their licenses and the low-flying planes checked out 185 vessels.

"You can’t just judge the success of the operation by the number of arrests," Tomkinson said at a Friday wrap up briefing in Majuro. "The operation provides deterrence. The fact that the fishing fleets know aircraft and ships are out there (checking) stops them (from illegal fishing)."

U.S. Coast Guard Captain Dana Ware said increasing multinational cooperation among enforcement agencies is having some impact on illegal fishing. "Last month, a Japanese plane sighted an illegally fishing Chinese vessel and called the U.S. Coast Guard, which boarded the vessel," Ware said.

Data from the Big Eye operation was fed into a coordinating center in Majuro, which is linked to the Forum Fisheries Agency in the Solomon Islands.

"The data is extremely useful to the national offices because they gain intelligence on what’s happening in their waters," Edwards said. "They know what boats are there, and they can keep an eye on them."

FFA surveillance operations officer Paul McCarthy said the FFA takes the fisheries information from the region and feeds it into a master database that allows surveillance officers to spot patterns of individual fishing vessels.

The fisheries officers track the hundreds of vessels in the region through a "vessel monitoring system" that links computers on each fishing boat with FFA headquarters in Honiara. The Eastern Star that paid the $200,000 fine this week was arrested for a VMS violation.

McCarthy and Papua New Guinea fisheries vessel monitoring officer David Karis expressed concern about hundreds of vessels fishing illegally in a "pocket" of high seas water between the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of Papua New Guinea and the Federated States of Micronesia to the north, one of the most lucrative fishing zones in the Pacific.

While operation Big Eye coordinated air and sea patrols among nine nations, it is only a once-a-year effort. The rest of the time, it is up to patrol vessels in each island, with the help of an occasional air force flight, to oversee a vast fishing zone that produces $2 billion worth of tuna annually.

McCarthy sees a tightening of the net on illegal fishermen with the multi-national Tuna Commission soon to roll out a new plan for boarding and inspection of fishing vessels on the high seas. While FFA monitors "in-zone" fishing, the Pohnpei-based Tuna Commission has jurisdiction over the high seas. "If the vessel being boarded isn’t from a country that’s a treaty signatory, it will be arrested," he said.

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