As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to restrict Marine Law Enforcement from apprehending illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishers for criminal prosecution, Marine Law officers say that they are continuing to work to return poachers home empty-handed.
On March 15, while carrying out the multilateral surveillance exercise Operation Rai Balang, the Remeliik II intercepted a vessel and two smaller boats with 18 crew members from the Philippines who were illegally fishing around 120 miles southeast of Merir Island. The crew members, who said that they were on their way from General Santos in the Philippines, were using a purse seine net to fish, although it appeared that no fish were aboard the vessel at the time they were caught. According to members of the Remeliik’s crew, although the vessel was not boarded due to COVID concerns, the purse seine net was reeled in and the winch was disabled, while other fishing gear was seized by the Remeliik crew, before the fishing vessel was released.
The crew members aboard the illegal purse seiner were not prosecuted, due to worries of potentially bringing the pandemic to Palau.
This occurs three months after a Chinese vessel guilty of IUU fishing was intercepted near Helen Reef and had its assets seized, but was not prosecuted, also due to COVID concerns and the cost of housing and feeding the crew.
Director Victor Remengesau of the Bureau of Maritime Security & Fish and Wildlife Protection says that it is hard to say if seizure of supplies without prosecution is enough to discourage future illegal fishing in Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), but that the measures were enough to make sure that the poachers could not continue fishing without first returning home, losing money and supplies in the process.
“Our thinking is that, if the fishermen leave Palau without our exploited resources, and they leave with a lot less than what they came with, they’ll think twice about coming back,” Director Remengesau said.
The Director went on to say that rules are changing as more people are being vaccinated. The crew of the Remeliik has already been vaccinated, and is just waiting on the Ministry of Health to determine that it is safe to conduct ship-boardings again, as well as arrests and prosecutions. Remengesau says that Marine Law is following international health regulations during patrols to prevent the spread of contagious diseases, by observing measures such as use of PPE’s, social distancing, and maintaining sanitation standards.
Right now, the crew of the Remeliik is standing by for emergency calls for medical evacuations from the outer islands. The Remeliik’s next task will be to escort the PSS Kedam, a 40-meter patrol boat donated to Palau by the Nippon Foundation, back to Japan for repairs on April 5. The Kedam was donated in 2017 to Marine Law, but has been docked for much of that time in Malakal, due to mechanical failures. Once it is repaired, it will be one of two patrol ships capable of conducting maritime patrols in Palau’s EEZ, along with the Remeliik.
Director Remengesau also says that Marine Law is looking forward to the arrival of the Sea Dragon Program, which will help with patrols by providing aerial surveillance and digital photographs, which can be used in criminal prosecutions of those accused of IUU fishing. The US Air Force system was originally scheduled to launch in January of this year, but mechanical setbacks have pushed its arrival date to sometime in April or May.
Meanwhile, Marine Law officers have received additional training in arresting techniques, as well as search-and-rescue operations. A three-day training from March 8th to 10th, conducted virtually by the Japan Coast Guard Mobile Cooperation Team (MCT), reinforced “common approaches” to surveillance, focusing on techniques such as inspection, arrests using the proper amount of force, and transportation, as well as basic rope work and emergency transportation while evacuating injured patients.

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