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Canada Leads North Pacific Mission Against Illegal Fishing

fishing boat
Annual mission seeks to stop illegal fishing in the North Pacific (file photo)

Published Jul 28, 2023 9:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

An annual mission to the North Pacific Ocean is now underway designed to tackle the hazard of illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing that is believed to be contributing to a massive decline in fish stocks and destroying marine ecosystems. During the four-month Indo-Pacific voyage, which is part of Operation North Pacific Guard (ONPG), an annual international law enforcement operation that targets illegal fishing on the high seas, the officers will also collect scientific data to enhance understanding of the high seas environment, including the migration range of species of interest including Pacific salmon.

The mission, which for the first time is led by Canada and includes officers from the U.S Coast Guard, will encompass an area of approximately 11 million square miles to conduct patrols, including high seas boardings and inspection operations, to ensure compliance with regulations and to detect illegal and unreported catch. This comes as Canada is raising a red flag that increasing IUU fishing activities are posing a significant risk to salmon populations in the North Pacific Ocean. They highlight the drastic decline in recent years of the salmon population while recognizing that warming ocean temperatures are also a major threat to the species. Scientists project that going by the current rate of overfishing, salmon survival will decline by as much as 90 percent over the next 40 years.

Data by the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission show that commercial salmon catches throughout the North Pacific dropped in 2022 to the second-lowest harvest of this century after reaching all-time highs in 2018. In its annual report that tracks salmon populations and catches as reported by its five member countries, Canada, U.S., Japan, Korea, and Russia, the commission asserts that salmon catches during the year amounted to 710,400 metric tonnes or approximately 353.9 million fish.

The Canadian government reports its Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative (PSSI) is supporting the current mission against IUU whose overall aim is to enhance conservation, protection, and enforcement efforts in high-risk areas for Canada’s Pacific salmon stocks. As part of the PSSI, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has committed more than C$46 million (US$35 million) over the next five years to combat IUU fishing in the North Pacific, including the deployment of a high-seas patrol vessel in the region.

Though there are over 1,200 vessels registered to fish in the high seas beyond the 200 nautical mile jurisdiction of the North Pacific under the North Pacific Fisheries Commission, the waters which span from the Canadian coast to Japan have witnessed a significant increase in IUU activities. Analysts believe that the majority of the activities are being conducted by “dark” fishing fleets often with links to China.

IUU fishing has been estimated to account for roughly 30 percent of all fishing activity globally, amounting to as much as 26 million metric tonnes of fish and costing the global economy over US$18 billion annually.

“Pacific salmon is vital to the food security, cultures, and economies of numerous First Nations, as well as the livelihoods of thousands of workers in rural and coastal communities in British Columbia and Yukon. As fish are not bound by borders, we must take decisive action to safeguard these species. This high seas enforcement operation will assist in the rebuilding efforts we are undertaking domestically,” said Joyce Murray, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.

During the mission, the Canadian Coast Guard will be contributing experts in navigation and small craft operations with advanced levels of emergency medical training while the U.S. Coast Guard will provide experienced boarding officers.

The annual mission has been instrumental in enforcing the United Nations Ban on High Seas Driftnets and in ensuring compliance with regulations that protect against IUU, which is fast emerging as a global menace not only due to its impacts on stocks and ecosystems but also because of undermining the livelihoods of approximately 40 million legitimate fish harvesters.

In a similar mission last year, Canadian officers uncovered incidents of sharks being caught and kept and garbage pollution. They also encountered many vessels with improper identification markings and several cases of harvesters failing to maintain proper catch records, a key element used to calculate sustainable harvest limits.