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Boardings by law enforcement seem to deter illegal activity

By Giff Johnson MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Nov. 27, 2009) – An eight-nation fisheries enforcement exercise has led to police boardings around the Pacific of 30 fishing vessels suspected of illegal activity, but no arrests over the past 10 days.

A multinational fishery monitoring team has been "watching" 900 fishing vessels and directing boardings of boats suspected of illegal fishing activity from its headquarters in the Marshall Islands.

Through Thursday, island police from Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and Papua New Guinea had boarded 30 vessels but none of these boardings had led to busts, according to officials at the Majuro command center for "Operation Bigeye," an annual effort to deter illegal fishing in the region.

"From the Forum Fisheries Agency’s viewpoint, the results so far are good," said Martin Campbell, who heads a new fisheries surveillance center at FFA headquarters in Honiara, Solomon Islands and who has been in Majuro for the two-week duration of Operation Bigeye, which ends Friday.

"It means the deterrent factor and the ramping up of major operations (like Bigeye) are clearly working. The message is getting out: it’s not worth it to fish illegally."

A number of the boardings by island marine police identified problems with the required vessel monitoring system on-board fishing boats, and these were ordered fixed before vessels could continue fishing, Campbell indicated. The VMS transmits position location 24-hours-a-day to FFA headquarters so fishing vessels can be tracked, and is required for any vessel seeking a license to fish legally in the region.

Bigeye is using a combination of air support from the United States Coast Guard, VMS reporting from each fishing boat, a fleet of patrol boats from each of the five cooperating island nations, and Google Earth computer software to track about 75 percent of the 1,200 licensed vessels currently in the Pacific, Campbell said.

Limiting the effectiveness of this year’s exercise is the lack of air support from Australia and New Zealand air forces that normally provide aircraft, but have been unable to the past two weeks.

Australian navy advisor to Marshall Islands Cmdr. Mitch Edwards said this annual surveillance is a huge effort bringing together the resources of the five islands with Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the Forum Fisheries Agency.

Australia is also providing funding to keep about eight patrol boats out on surveillance during the mission.

"We look at the information from the vessel monitoring systems and produce a picture across the operations area (from Marshall Islands to Papua New Guinea)," Edwards said. "We identify potential vessels that may not be compliant with licenses, or their location in a particular exclusive economic zone."

Vessels are marked with colors indicating their status, from green for good to red for potential problems. Country fisheries headquarters are advised by the Bigeye headquarters in Majuro of possible offenders, and more information is requested from the individual country as to the registration and licensing of the vessel in question. "If the boat is licensed, then it’s okay," Edwards said. "If it’s not, then we target it for further investigation by a patrol boat or aircraft that’s in the vicinity."

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