Palau vs. the Poachers

Date: February 17, 2016

Source: The New York Times

The island nation has mounted an aggressive response to illegal fishing in their waters. How they protect themselves may help the rest of the world save all of the oceans.

Late on a January 2015 evening in Shepherdstown, W.Va., a data analyst named Bjorn Bergman, surrounded by whiteboards scribbled with computer code, was orchestrating a high-stakes marine police chase halfway around the world. Staring at his laptop in a cramped ground-floor office, he drank from his sixth cup of coffee and typed another in a long series of emails: ‘‘Try and cut them off rather than making for the last known position.’’ Nearly 9,000 miles away, the Remeliik, a police patrol ship from the tiny island nation Palau, was pursuing a 10-man Taiwanese pirate ship, the Shin Jyi Chyuu 33, through Palauan waters. Bergman, working for a nonprofit research organization called SkyTruth, had mastered the use of satellite data to chart a ship’s most likely course. Instead of pointing the police to where the pirate ship was, he would tell them where it was about to be. He took another sip of coffee, studied his screen, then typed again: ‘‘It may be advisable for the Remeliik to turn southeast.’’

Bergman had been tracking the Shin Jyi Chyuu 33 for weeks, and emailed an alert about possible illegal fishing two days earlier. Before moving to West Virginia to work for SkyTruth, he spent three years working as a marine ob­server on Alaskan fishing boats, logging the details of the daily catch, as required by federal and state fishery authorities. At SkyTruth, Bergman did his surveillance work from a far greater remove, monitoring ships by satellite. For months, he had been studying a satellite feed from above Palau. He knew its squiggles and slashes by memory. A passenger boat out of Pitcairn Island appeared every few weeks; a United States Navy ship from Diego Garcia conducted regular maneuvers; a Chinese research vessel was doing a survey of some sort in a grid pattern; a Taiwanese ship that never seemed to fish made repeated trips out to meet other long-line fishing vessels. The Shin Jyi Chyuu 33 stood out, however. Switching among registries of fishing permits, regional tuna licenses and blacklisted vessels, he could tell it had no license to fish in Palau’s waters, even though its zigzag trajectory indicated it was doing just that.

In response to Bergman’s alert, an international team gathered into the cramped, second-floor police command center on Koror, Palau’s most populous island. There were three local police officers, an adviser from the Pew Charitable Trusts and two Australian Navy officers, on loan to Palau to advise on everything from running the Remeliik (which the Australians had also donated) to using satellite-data analysis software. Working through the night and the following day, the team radioed the information they received from West Virginia to Allison Baiei, a Palauan marine police officer, aboard the Remeliik.

Police efforts like these, coordinated and international in scope, are a rarity when it comes to enforcing the law at sea, but the alternative is usually no enforcement at all. More than two-thirds of the planet is covered by water, and much of that liquid expanse is ungoverned and potentially ungovernable. Criminal enterprise has flourished in the breach. The global black market for seafood is worth more than $20 billion, and one in every five fish on American plates is caught illegally.

After a 51-hour push, much of it through heavy seas, the Remeliik’s unrelenting pace finally paid off: It caught up with the Taiwanese ship just a few miles before the boundary with Indonesian waters. The officers escorted the ship back to port in Palau, and when they inspected the hold, Baiei told me, they found an especially grim haul. Inside, among the stacks of tuna, were hundreds of severed shark fins. The officers piled the contraband onto the Shin Jyi Chyuu 33’s deck and, when they ran out of room there, piled the rest into a bloody heap on the dock. They counted, measured and photographed the fins to use for the eventual prosecution, then dumped them into the sea. ‘‘Disgusting,’’ was all Baiei would say about the scene.

Few places on the planet are as isolated as Palau, or as sprawling. Its 21,000 residents are scattered across a handful of its 250 islands, which take up just 177 square miles combined. Relatively poor, and with no military of its own, Palau employs a marine police division with just 18 members and one patrol ship. Yet it has authority over roughly 230,000 square miles of ocean. Under international law, a country’s ‘‘exclusive economic zone,’’ the waters where it maintains fishing and mineral rights, extends 200 nautical miles from its coasts. That means that a country roughly the size of Philadelphia is responsible for patrolling a swath of ocean about the size of France, in a region teeming with supertrawlers, state-subsidized poacher fleets, mile-long drift nets and the floating fish attracters known as FADs.

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