Fighting Illegal Fishing in the Pacific

Soaring over the Pacific at 840km/h on one of the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s (RNZAF) newest planes, the P-8A Poseidon, is a bit different to a normal day on the job for Mike Bewick from Fisheries New Zealand’s international compliance team.

Mike was onboard the P-8A Poseidon as part of New Zealand’s efforts to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the Pacific.

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“On patrol, we look for fishing vessels in the area and use the Poseidon’s cutting-edge surveillance equipment to monitor their activity and check for any signs that they’re doing something illegal.  I’m there to support the aircrew by providing ‘fish eyes’, looking to spot anything out of the ordinary with the vessels expected appearance or behaviour, including what’s missing from view.”

Mike’s patrol with the RNZAF was part of the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) coordinated Operation Rai Balang, which took place between 12 and 15 March 2024. It covered a patch of the Pacific Ocean north of Papua New Guinea, near Micronesia, Palau, and Indonesia. Operation Rai Balang is a multinational effort involving aerial and surface surveillance assets from New Zealand, Australia, France, and the United States that work to support the Pacific Island countries by combatting IUU fishing.

“Most countries in the Pacific don’t have the resources to patrol in these remote areas, and they’re always grateful that New Zealand can get out there to look for fishers who shouldn’t be there or are fishing illegally.

“The fish caught in the region are mostly migratory species such as tuna and billfish, meaning they move around the regional fisheries throughout the Pacific, including in New Zealand’s waters.”

IUU fishing is an ongoing problem for New Zealand and our Pacific neighbours. It undermines the sustainability of fisheries, hurts local fishers, and impacts the economic stability of Pacific nations.

For Pacific tuna alone, the value taken by IUU fishing was estimated at US$333.49 million between 2017 and 2019.

This criminal behaviour can also be associated with transnational organised crime such as smuggling, piracy, labour exploitation, and human trafficking.

“Once we spot a vessel of interest, we contact Pacific Island patrol vessels with information about what we’ve seen and guide them to the location of the suspicious vessel to inspect their fishing operation. Alternately we can provide our concerns to agencies that can arrange an inspection of the vessel at its next port call.

“If we find evidence of IUU fishing by a vessel operating on the high seas and outside of any nation’s territorial waters, we provide information to the country the vessel is flagged to and request that they investigate further. This could lead to penalties such as fines, confiscation of catch, or the vessel being held in port.

“At international fisheries organisation meetings, New Zealand’s representatives raise incidences of IUU fishing with the flagged nations of the vessels to hold them accountable and to help ensure appropriate action is taken.

"Following an investigation last year, a vessel that was fishing illegally in the Pacific was added to the international IUU list. This means they will find it difficult to get future fishing licences and won’t be able to legally sell their catch, so that it will be a struggle to be economically viable to continue operating.”

The RNZAF began using the Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft in mid-2023 as a long-range maritime patrol aircraft. It has a crew of nine and can remain in the air for up to twelve hours.

“RNZAF support is crucial for the success of these operations – the technology onboard is impressive and the enthusiasm and professionalism of the crew is second to none.”

Mike is passionate about the fishing industry, and the work to combat IUU is important to him.

“Stopping IUU is important for sustainable fisheries management and for the nations that rely on healthy fish stocks. Fishing rules are there to support the sustainability of fisheries which is why it’s important to hold those who fish illegally to account.

“I find it really heartening that a small nation like New Zealand can pull together resources from various agencies to make a big splash on Pacific fisheries compliance and play an important role in the fight to stop IUU fishing.”

- Fisheries New Zealand

Photo: New Zealand Defence Force

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