The United States and international partners successfully concluded the Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) surveillance operation in the Pacific, March 27.
Op Rai Balang is an FFA operation designed to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) in the Pacific. This year, eight Pacific island countries, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and France participated, including a Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point HC-130 Hercules aircrew and the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Sequoia (WLB 215).
“Despite the unprecedented situation the world finds itself in, we still have a duty to ensure essential missions such as the prevention of illegal fishing,” said Cmdr. Jason Brand, the enforcement branch chief for the Coast Guard 14th District. “Safety is always a top priority for all involved, and we closely coordinated with our partner counties and agencies to ensure the operation was both effective and didn’t present a danger to the well being of the Pacific community.”
While operations to detect and disrupt IUU fishing occur year-round, the FFA holds four primary joint operations annually to combat IUU in the pacific. Op Rai Balang is one of them. During the two-week effort, the FFA coordinated air and surveillance assets over 5 million square miles resulting in 108 sightings and conducting 24 boardings both at sea and in port.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many original plans for the participating countries and agencies changed to meet new challenges. It was through adaptability and ingenuity of the participating nations were able to overcome these new hurdles and ensure the operation was a success.
The crew of the Sequoia adapted to the changing situation and patrolled the high seas off Guam and the Federated States of Micronesia. Their team included a linguist from the U.S. Marine Corps 3rd Radio Battalion. While on the high seas, the crew enforced international fisheries law under the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), another international, treaty-based organization dedicated to the conservation and management of migratory fish stocks on the high seas. The data gained from the crew’s efforts was, in turn, shared with the FFA, helping to create a better understanding of the fishing situation in the Pacific and advancing Op Rai Balang’s goals.
“The crew’s enthusiasm to conduct the mission and show the U.S. presence while interacting with fishing vessels on the high seas is a credit to their commitment. We are enforcing international law and ensuring we do our part to protect these vital resources,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Adams, commanding officer, Sequoia. “While this isn’t necessarily our primary mission, as the Sequoia is a buoy tender, we take pride in our ability to carry out multiple different missions and the crew trains hard to serve the interest of the United States and our international partners in several different roles, whether maintaining aids to navigation or enforcing fisheries laws.”
The Sequoia and HC-130 Hercules crews operated alongside partner crews from a Navy P-8 Poseidon, Australia’s HMAS Maryborough, a New Zealand Defense Force P-3 Orion, and the French navy ship D’entrecasteaux during the operation. The close working relationships between these Pacific Quadrilateral Defence Coordination Group allies allowed for effective coverage of the significant operational zone.
Fish stocks are a vital renewable resource for many nations in the Pacific, and because of the migratory nature of fish, these countries need to work together in conservation. The multi-million-dollar IUU fishing industry represents a direct threat to the efforts to ensure these resources remain sustainable for years to come.
“Fisheries surveillance in the Pacific is imperative to ensure compliance by the fishing fleets, and deter any illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities,” said Cmdr. Robert Lewis, at the FFA’s Regional Fisheries Surveillance Centre (RFSC) in Honiara. “Fisheries have a direct benefit for Pacific island counties economies, and that makes surveillance even more important in these unprecedented times.”
The FFA is an international organization whose purpose is to assist its 17 member countries in sustainably managing fishery resources within their Exclusive Economic Zone from IUU. The organization supplies member countries with expertise and technical assistance for protecting their fisheries.