Workers haul a sailfish, a common 'byctach' species, on board the Taiwanese long line fishing vessel 'Sheng Chi Hui No. 7'During our joint enforcement exercise with the Palauan authorities, we discovered a suspected illegal operation on board a long liner in Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone.


The Taiwanese vessel the Sheng Chi Hui was spotted by our helicopter early yesterday morning. As they approached our photographer managed to get shots of shark finning occurring in Palauan waters, a blatant breach of the conditions of the Shark Sanctuary. When the patrol boat arrived, there was no sign of sharks on board but based on our photographic evidence, the Palauan Government has ordered that the ship be detained. The Esperanza is escorting the Sheng Chi Hui to port alongside the Palauan patrol vessel, the PSS President H.I.Remeliik.

But what is enforcement, and why does it matter?

Overfishing is the biggest threat facing the future of the Pacific and its tuna stocks -one of the world’s last abundant tuna fisheries. The environmental, economic and social impacts of overfishing and pirate fishing are devastating to Pacific Island communities. Pacific Islanders are being robbed of the fish that is their primary source of protein, and the backbone of their economies.

There are three levels of pirate fishing formally described as ‘Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated’ fishing. 

Illegal fishing refers to activities conducted by fishing vessels that either operate without a licence or is not abiding by the laws and regulations of that particular country or region.

Unreported fishing refers to fishing activities (usually about what they catch, how much they catch or where they fish) which have not been reporting, or have been misreported Greenpeace experienced these activities first hand

Unregulated  fishing refers to fishing activities conducted by vessels without any nationality or by those flying the flag of a country not a member of the fisheries management body that governs that region.

Pirate fishing is stealing.  Stolen fish caught in the Pacific are laundered on the global market away from the watchful eyes of authorities, causing a huge economic loss for Pacific Island countries, and preventing proper assessment of tuna species.  Without proper stock assessments, sustainable management is impossible

The lack of resources available to effectively patrol the waters of the Western and Central Pacific, the unregulated nature of the high seas, and the inconsistent and unreliable nature of monitoring all make it far too easy for illegal activities to take place out here. These serious loopholes need to be closed and pirate fishing needs to be eliminated.

Undertaking a proper and consistent surveillance and enforcement exercise is a critical component to closing these loopholes.

In the Pacific 17 developing countries with small governments share the migratory tuna stocks, and on average have one or two patrol boat to monitor their vast ocean. Kiribati’s waters, for example, cover an area of over 3 million square miles, yet the country has only one small patrol boat. There are over 6000 vessels registered to operate in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

All these vessels are supposed to carry what is called a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS). It automatically collects, records and analyses information related to the location and activity of vessels. They are the backbone of surveillance as it is virtually impossible to monitor huge expanses of ocean. When vessels do not report there is no way of knowing how long boats stay out at sea, how much or what they catch.

A normal surveillance and enforcement exercise will target vessels of interest in known hot spots or overt illegal unlicensed vessels or activities. Enforcement officials will board and inspect the vessel at sea and will either order the vessel back to port to get its VMS fixed or impose a fine.

It is rare that Pacific governments get aerial surveillance to extend their range and coverage during a surveillance and enforcement exercise, though France, US, New Zealand and Australia have been providing at sea and air surveillance to the region. 

Who rules the seas - the industry, pirates or enforcement?

No matter how many patrol boats or planes we mobilise, illegal fishing will continue. This is multi billion-dollar industry and the Pacific is the largest supplier of tuna in the world. Illegal fishing operations exploit the limitation in resources and capacity available to Pacific governments to properly police their waters. By demanding proper traceability and 100% assurance that the fish you are eating- in a can, fresh or frozen- is coming from a legal and sustainable source we can cut the life line of illegal fishing. They won’t have a reason to continue business as usual if we demand change.

Since leaving Port on Monday with the Palauan enforcement vessel the Remeliik, we have found eight illegal Fish Aggregation Devices, checked three suspect ships, documented shark finning in Palau’s shark sanctuary and escorted one vessel back to Port for further investigation.

>>Follow the last days of the tour

Lagi Toribau is the Greenpeace Australia Pacific oceans team leader, based in Fiji.