Scattered clouds stretched across the sky, meeting the vivid blue Palauan waters on the horizon. The maritime law enforcement boarding team completes their final preparations on the fantail of the USCGC Washington (WPB 1331) as the small boat detail lowers the cutter’s ridged inflatable boat (RIB) into the water. Petty Officer 1st Class Ralph Pastore, Washington’s boarding officer, finalizes the details with the RIB’s coxswain, Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Reo and Seaman Duke Joseph of the Palauan Division of Maritime Law Enforcement. Their target is a long-line fishing vessel making way about a half-mile off the cutter’s port bow.
Washington’s crew was patrolling Palau’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as part of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) Operation Kurukuru, a coordinated maritime surveillance operation. The operation’s goal is to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Success depends on the ability of partners, like Palau and the United States, to work together.
“This is my second time coming down here and working with a Palauan shiprider,” said Pastore. “Last time I was able to get a good idea of how they work both on land and out here on the ocean so it makes the job easier”
The operation, targeting the multi-million-dollar IUU fishing, was conducted from Oct. 7 to 18, across 8.2 million square miles. To put in perspective, that covers an area the size of Russia, India, and Egypt combined. Assets and crews from multiple counties were involved including the Washington, an HC-130 Hercules airplane and crew from Hawaii temporarily based out of Tonga, and an intelligence specialist working out of the Regional Fisheries Surveillance Center at the FFA headquarters in Honiara, Solomon Islands, where the joint operation was coordinated.
The 12-day operation saw around 132 sea days of active patrolling and 540 flight hours of maritime air surveillance. There were 131 total boardings both at sea and dockside, with only four violations found and no unknown vessels detected.
“The fact there were no unknown fishing vessels found with such thorough air surveillance converge and only four infringements imposed with such a high level of boardings is evidence that current regulations and law enforcement practices are working well with the four FFA operations leading the effort,” said the FFA Surveillance Operations Officer, Cmdr, Robert Lewis, seconded from the Royal Australian navy.
But what do those boardings look like? At sea, the team launches from the Washington and makes its way through the water to the fishing vessel. Upon boarding, the team’s interpreter speaks with the crew to ensure no human rights violations exist while Joesph talks to the master of the ship.
“I was looking for licenses, the fish log and also on deck we are looking for signs of catching sharks, shark fins, any parts of sharks, turtles and steel wires for fishing,” said Joseph after the boarding. “You’re not supposed to use steel wire for fishing.”
Kurukuru is a Japanese term meaning round and round. Fish are migratory animals and they annually travel throughout the Pacific providing an important renewable resource for Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs). As with anything of value, there will always be actors who wish to cut corners and skirt laws. IUU undermines efforts to conserve and manage fish stocks, presenting a dire threat to many PICT’s efforts to protect these vital resources for generations to come.
“I think for us Palauans, our nation is small, and we don’t have enough people and manpower to protect our waters,” said Joseph. “The waters are very big, so with the help of the United States and working together we can protect the waters for the Palauan people for the future.”
Bilateral shiprider agreements are a key tool for the Coast Guard 14th District. The United States maintains 11 of these agreements with Pacific Forum countries. By embarking ship riders, Coast Guard crews are able to support allies in the region and work toward expanded security addressing regional challenges to peace, prosperity, and social inclusion. These agreements also provide a framework to build valuable relationships between Coast Guard and PICT counterparts.
‘We were able to establish a nice camaraderie, especially with the Palauan national living with our crew,” said Pastore. “A shiprider is always a plus to have for us because we are able to sit down and ask questions Coast Guard law enforcement normally won’t be able to.”
Operation Kurukuru is one of Washington’s last operational patrols before being decommissioned in December. A number of the cutter’s crew will transfer to the three new Fast Response Cutters (FRC) scheduled to replace the cutter and its sister ships, Kiska (WPB 1336) and the already decommissioned Assateague (WPB 1337). FRCs are some of the Coast Guard’s newest platforms and are equipped with the latest technologies. The first FRC arriving in Guam will be the Coast Guard Cutter Myrtle Hazard (WPC 1339).
“Having experience in the area of responsibility will be beneficial,” said Lt. j.g. Victor Broskey, the Washington’s executive officer. “There’s quite a few crewmembers slated to be on the commissioning crew who served in Guam before, so I think the Coast Guard has set us up pretty well for the first crew.”
This retention of crewmembers in the area means the lessons learned from joint evolutions such as the one conducted between the Washington’s boarding team and Joseph will carry over to the new FRCs, ensuring the goodwill developed by the crew of the Washington will remain relevant.
With the information Joseph gathered from the boarding, Palauan authorities will be able to inspect the long-line fishing vessel when it pulls back into port. Thus ensuring the master is following the Palauan law by matching his records and his fish hold, contributing to the overall success of the efforts between the United States and its partners in the region to combat IUU.
As is usually the case in the Pacific, a successful operation depends on the teamwork between partners. The crew of the Washington strives to cultivate these critical relationships and lay additional groundwork for future joint activities. The cutter’s motto is “our cause is noble,” and throughout the ongoing efforts, the crew lives up to this saying, ensuring success in the region long after this cutter is replaced by new ships bearing the famous racing stripe and serving Pacific communities.