Blue boats – a new illegal fishing threat to Vanuatu

FFA DG James Movick (l) and PNA CEO Lugwig Kumoru

updating reports on the progress of the WCPFC meeting.

By Jonas Cullwick

There is a strong possibility that the so called ‘blue boats’ -small Asian fishing boats involved in coastal poaching — have made it into Vanuatu’s waters.

Over the past few years blue boats have been found in Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and as far south as Australia and New Caledonia.

The director general of the Forum Fisheries Agency James Movick says these vessels, most of which come from Vietnam, are difficult to catch.

“It is a difficult challenge because these are small boats that by and large because they are small and they are not part of the tuna fishing fleet, they are not required to have transponders on board or automatic location communicators, so essentially we have to physically spot these boats in order to be able to apprehend them.”

He said the FFA was now taking steps to put into place a number of surveillance mechanisms that will allow the agency to assist those countries that are being affected by this problem to better surveil their zones and to target these boats.

“So the thing I want to keep is that the blue boats are effectively poaching within your 12-mile zones, they are coming onto the reefs of the countries that are affected. At the present time that’s Palau, FSM, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and New Caledonia where they definitely have been sighted and apprehended.

“We think that because they are getting through to New Caledonia that there is a strong possibility that they are also in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. We have to make that assumption for planning purposes,” FFA DG Movick said.

He added that these boats were typically not part of the FFA’s mandate, however, as a regional agency, the agency recognizes that it has a responsibility and there is an opportunity to use the regional platforms to support those countries to better surveil and monitor any blue boat activity.

“So we are planning to have to bring together those parties that are being affected in the first quarter of next year in order to discuss a strategy. And this will be a strategy that will need the cooperation of some of our larger metropolitan friends and partners we are really going to have to track these boats all the way from the ports from which they originate through the navigational pathways into the region.”

It is going to be difficult as these boats that don’t have transponders, are primarily wooden so they don’t show very well on radar in that they are small and so we are trying to trial the use of a number of different forms of satellite surveillance technology which is very expensive but we nevertheless think that in order to assist the member countries have a handle on this issue.

Most island countries don’t have aeroplanes or the budgets for the planes to go out and look and the planes can only go out so far.

Most of the boats apprehended have Vietnamese citizens on board and many come from Vietnamese ports but Vu Duyen Hai the head of Vietnamese delegation to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission which is meeting in Nadi, denies Vietnam is responsible.

“Some other countries have informed us that Vietnamese boats also come to other countries like Palau or Micronesia to poach but Vietnam is not so sure that these are Vietnamese vessels.”

He accepted that some fishing vessels stray outside Vietnam’s 200-miles Exclusive Economic Zone but he said this is because they “follow the fish” and most do not have equipment to tell them if they mistakenly enter other countries’ EEZ.

He said the Vietnamese government has tried to advise them not to go to other countries’ EEZ to poach because that would be illegal fishing.

He said the Vietnamese fisheries authorities also check local fishing vessels but “sometimes, fishing vessels go out, switch off their communication equipment and authorities could not locate them and this becomes a problem and now they are also against this and it has very heavy penalties including removal of licenses for ever .”

Mr. Vu said the government of Vietnam was very sorry about hearing of the incident of burning of blue boats by Palau, and that the government of Vietnam removed the fishermen’s licenses so they don’t fish again.

“Vietnamese government doesn’t support such activities and have strong penalties and install communications equipment on vessel s to check their locations and they cooperate with countries to including Indonesia, Timor Leste, PNG and Australia to stop these boats.”

Vietnam wants to become member of the WCPFC, but many members of the Forum Fisheries Agency do not want Vietnam to become a full member while this issue continues.

Palau’s Noah Idelchonga senior fisheries advisor to the Palau Minister of Environment who also works with the California-based NGO The Nature Conservatory agrees blue boats present a difficult problem.

It costs Pacific governments a lot to care for stranded seamen while they go through the legal processes which in Palau can lead to having their boats burned.

“It is drastic what has happened by burning the boats, but the government is setting an example,”

“Indonesia is bombing them,” Idelchong said

“That is a little bit too much for us,” he added.

Rhea Moss-Christian, Chair of the WCPFC said: “It (blue boats) certainly is an issue of concern because it relates to IUU issues in general which impacts small island coastal states. We’ll wait and see what those members most affected have in terms of proposals or request to the Commission this year if any to take action.”

The Chief Executive Officer of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) Lugwig Kumoru thinks the “blue boats are doing a very big damage.”

“I mean they’ve found them in Australia, PNG, Palau, FSM, so if they found them there, they must be everywhere. I don’t know how we gonna control them but I think that’s a very big problem. And the worst thing is that the very same people that they found in the boats kept coming back. Some even come for the second and third time. Whatever measures we are taking does not seem to deter them.”

When asked his message to the Vietnamese government would be over the blue boats he answered abruptly: “I would just sink the boats. If I had my way I’d sink all the boats. But I know if we sink them they don’t worry because they are very cheap boats. I don’t think we should even think of allowing them to be full members of the Commission with the issue of the blue boats.”

Head of delegation of FSM who is the person on the frontline of the blue boats issue said it’s a serious matter for his country.

“It is a matter that goes way beyond our imagination that fleets which seem to have been completely condoned by flag states to allow such a large number of vessels to go out beyond their monitoring capabilities or their abilities to exercise a flag state’s obligations and control of these vessels to go and actually seek to exploit some of the most vulnerable island countries of the Pacific who are highly dependent on marine resources, not just for their livelihood but for their sustainable development of their economies and for food security,” MrPangelinan said

The Forum Fisheries Agency is beefing up surveillance and plans to hold a meeting of all affected nations, including Vanuatu in the first quarter of next year.

The WCPFC secretariat is based in Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia and is charged with managing fishing in the high seas of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

Members of WCPFC include the 17 countries that are members of the Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency (Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu) and distant water fishing nations of China, Canada, European Community, France, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.

Six Pacific territories of American Samoa, Northern Marianas, French Polynesia, Guam, New Caledonia and Tokelau are also in the WCPFC and five other countries listed as cooperating non-members are Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Liberia and Vietnam.The meeting ended on Saturday.

Jonas Cullwick, a former General Manager of VBTC is now a Senior Journalist with the Daily Post. Contact: jonas@dailypost.vu. Cell # 678 5460922

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