Fisheries surveillance ramps up in Marshall Islands

11:22 am on 4 April 2023
Regular boardings and inspections of fishing boats and tuna carrier vessels in Majuro by Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority enforcement officers is part of the authority's active monitoring and surveillance program. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

Regular boardings and inspections of fishing boats and tuna carrier vessels in Majuro by Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority enforcement officers is part of the authority's active monitoring and surveillance program. Photo: Francisco Blaha

The Marshall Islands is making use of a "maritime domain awareness platform" developed by a New Zealand company to identify suspected illegal fishing activity in the western Pacific.

Information gleaned by Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority (MIMRA) fisheries surveillance officers via the platform has already led to Thailand banning a tuna carrier vessel from unloading its $US7 million cargo last month based on concerns for alleged illegal fishing activity in Kiribati.

The development highlights new and expanding capability for monitoring and enforcement by the Marshallese regulator.

"If you know what to look for, you find things," Francisco Blaha, who worked with fisheries boarding and compliance officers Stephen Domenden and Stevenson Graham on the case involving the South Korean carrier vessel, Sun Flower 7, said.

MIMRA's Oceanic Division personnel have become more savvy in understanding and evaluating vessel movements that are captured through satellite, vessel monitoring systems and onboard logs leading to prosecutions for incidents in Marshall Islands waters or, in the case of the Sun Flower 7, referral of information to other fisheries departments for their review and action.

Blaha, a former commercial fisherman, has worked with the MIMRA for the past six years as its offshore fisheries advisor, which is supported by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

New maritime software

Last year, the marine resources authority began trialing a new maritime domain awareness platform developed by a New Zealand firm, Starboard Maritime Intelligence (starboard.nz).

Starboard built a software program that "provides teams with a comprehensive view of maritime activity and powerful tools for analysis."

Combining global automatic identification system data, multiple layers of satellite data, scientific models, and other information, the Starboard software supports fisheries teams to "effectively analyze and investigate vessels and areas," according to starboard.nz.

With the support of MIMRA director Glen Joseph, Blaha worked with the New Zealand company to roll out the fisheries monitoring software - in addition to the multiple monitoring systems already in play at the MIMRA headquarters in Majuro.

Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority's offshore fisheries advisor Francisco Blaha at the fisheries authority's Majuro headquarters reviews satellite imagery of fishing vessels active in the western Pacific region. Photo: Giff Johnson.

Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority's offshore fisheries advisor Francisco Blaha at the fisheries authority's Majuro headquarters reviews satellite imagery of fishing vessels active in the western Pacific region. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Giff Johnson

As the authority's staff began using it last year, they also offered suggestions to the Starboard team to develop additional capabilities specific to this fishery, Blaha said.

He said the Starboard team developed additional algorithms to help track vessels that MIMRA was monitoring.

In addition to making use of the Starboard software, MIMRA is linked with the International Monitoring, Control and Surveillance Network, a global fish monitoring organization that also shares information and resources to prevent illegal fishing.

Generally, most of the fisheries surveillance and monitoring centers around purse seine and longline fishing vessels because these are actual fishing boats.

But the MIMRA team began taking a look at carrier vessels and their interest was piqued after the seeing unusual behavior by the Sun Flower 7 in Kiribati waters.

Fisheries officers in the region know much more about fishing boats.

But "we don't know much about carriers," Blaha said.

The New Zealand system can segregate data to show only the movement of carriers, he said, adding "these capabilities were not available a year ago."

Greater capabilities

The Starboard vessel monitoring software provides MIMRA and other users with capabilities beyond existing monitoring systems for the commercial tuna fishery.

"This technology allows us to do (surveillance) we couldn't do in the past," he said.

"Now algorithms are being developed to pick up movement of carrier vessels."

Carrier vessels are not licensed to fish. Rather, they are licensed to transship and receive fish from fishing vessels and supply fishing vessels with fishing supplies and crew.

MIMRA compliance officers saw the Sun Flower 7 leave South Korea and head for its intended port of call in the Federated States of Micronesia.

But instead of stopping in Micronesia it continued into Kiribati waters where it then proceeded to change its course into a zig-zag movement over a period of days before turning around and heading back in a straight line to a port in FSM.

"Why didn't it go directly from point A to B?" Blaha asked, given that its port of call was in the FSM, not Kiribati - thousands of miles to the east. And further: "Why would it be making movements like this?"

Fisheries monitoring and compliance officer Stevenson Graham reviews the log of a purse seiner during a routine boarding and inspection by Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority officers. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

Fisheries monitoring and compliance officer Stevenson Graham reviews the log of a purse seiner during a routine boarding and inspection by Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority officers. Photo: Francisco Blaha

Using FADs for fishing activity

Marshallese personnel figured the only reason for the zig-zag movement was a vessel dropping fish aggregation devices (FADs) into the water.

Blaha said he consulted a friend from a purse seiner anchored in Majuro last year who had the same reaction: The carrier had to be dropping FADs.

The alleged FAD setting took place between November 16 and 26 last year, with the most obvious patterns between November 19 and 22, Blaha said.

After identifying this unusual movement, MIMRA compliance officers took a closer look at the behavior of other carrier vessels and discovered "quite a few more and all related to the same country of ownership (Korea) even if flagged to other usual open registries," said Blaha.

Carriers are not licensed to drop FADs, which is considered a fishing activity for which a vessel must be licensed.

The captain of the Sun Flower 7 after being confronted with the allegation of illegal fishing activity said he was not dropping FADs but rather was picking them up and getting rid of marine debris for purse seiners.

But Blaha said he was able to shoot holes in the captain's claim by pointing out discrepancies like the near impossibility of collecting FADs while maintaining an 11-knot speed during the zig-zag period in Kiribati waters, along with the lack of FAD records and serial numbers.

And even if the captain's claim was credible, under Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission rules, "the retrieving of FADs is fishing and a carrier is not licensed to fish," Blaha said.

MIMRA's surveillance and compliance team put together its report that was provided to neighbors Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia.

After it was learned the Sun Flower 7 was heading to Thailand to offload its tuna tonnage gathered from various purse seiners, MIMRA staff forwarded the same information to fisheries authorities in Thailand.

Thai fisheries officials acted in mid-March, ordering the Sun Flower 7 out of port in Thailand without unloading its thousands of tons of tuna for processing.

Technology paying off

Thailand's action to deny the South Korean vessel to use its port to offload tuna is a development of huge consequence since Thailand is the world's largest processor of canned tuna and is a country that sets world market pricing.

Thailand-based canneries process about 25 percent of the world's canned tuna.

The Nation Thailand news site carried the story earlier this month, reporting that the peputy national police chief general Surachet Hakparn had directed that the Sun Flower 7 leave Thailand because it is suspected of using illegal fishing gear and fishing in waters it had no permission to fish in.

"We all have the responsibility to show the world that Thailand does not support illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing," he said.

In an official letter to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), headquartered in Pohnpei, Thailand's acting director general of fisheries Taworn Thunjal said tracking of the Sun Flower 7 "indicated several large course deviations potentially engaging in unauthorized FAD deployment in the jurisdiction fo the WCPFC and exclusive economic zone of Kiribati.

"The vessel master clarified that he was retrieving buoys for transferring to fishing vessels. However, the vessel is still not able to prove the legality of this activity."

Thunjal's letter formally notified WCPFC that Thailand had denied port use to the Sun Flower 7.

The Thailand fisheries department letter was subsequently issued March 23 by WCPFC executive director Rhea Moss-Christian to all WCPFC members, cooperating non-members and observer states putting everyone on notice about the alleged illegal fishing activity of Sun Flower 7.

South Korea, Thailand, and the island nations all come under WCPFC jurisdiction.

The vessel had wanted to unload over 4,000 tons of tuna valued at over $US7 million, according to The Nation Thailand.

The vessel's having taken ownership of $7 million worth of tuna that it cannot offload "is more costly than any fine we can impose," Blaha said.

"This started from us doing our job. These are port state measures for Majuro to prevent illegal activity and have a much wider impact in the region."

MIMRA's expanded use of technology is paying off at the regional level.

"Very few islands have the capacity to integrate systems," Blaha said, pointing out that this is what MIMRA is now able to do.