The Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) in the Solomon Islands, working with 21 patrol boats, protects hundreds of millions of dollars in tuna fishing licence income for the region’s aid-dependent nations.
The widening role into border security operations is being enabled through an obscure treaty agreement Australia is preparing to ratify allowing Pacific Islands states to share information to enhance fisheries surveillance and law enforcement.
“It’s important for Australia in terms regional surveillance system that what we put in place for fisheries can also be used to do other border control issues within the region. That is ultimately our goal,” said Director General of the 17 Pacific nation FFA James Movick.
“To be able use the platform we developed to look at a broader range of border control for our Pacific member countries, to the extent the Pacific member countries can better defend their borders, better defend their resources, it adds to the stability of the region.
“That’s to Australia’s advantage and I think the Australian government has wisely understood this, and taken steps to support this and has done so in a very sensitive manner,” Mr Movick said.
In the hills just behind Chinatown in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara, the FFA surveillance centre monitors about 30 million square kilometres of sea, including the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of 15 island nations, excluding Australia and New Zealand.
It monitors licensed tuna fishing vessels from countries like Korea, Taiwan, China and Japan in the Central and Western Pacific, where about 60 per cent of the tuna consumed globally every year comes from.
“People smuggling, drug smuggling, a lot of those types of activities. It would be marginal cost to extend the platform to look at those activities,” said Movick.
“We’ve got in place the Niue Treaty Subsidiary Agreement, which is a regulatory frame which will allow for easy cooperation between Pacific Island countries.
“With the regional surveillance system we have tools to not only surveil fishing boats but all other maritime activity in the region. To include the other sectors is the logical way to move forward, the efficient way to move forward.”
The FFA works with each nation by pooling information from monitoring fishing vessels. Any unusual activities detected are passed on for each country to pursue as they choose.
A boat tracking system monitoring about 1,500 boats daily is displayed on a large screen in the ‘Restricted Area’ of the Fisheries Surveillance Centre.
“Being open about what we do and being open about how capable the Fisheries Surveillance Centre is at keeping track of boats, as we are building our capacity into the future, I think that deterrence is the biggest output from this,” said Australian Navy Commander Gavin Baker, who is seconded to the FFA as a surveillance operations officer.
Spread across 12 Pacific nations are the 21 patrol boats, donated by Australia and operated and crewed by those countries.
“One of their big roles is to support us in terms of fisheries, countering illegal fishing operations, but they’re also involved in search and rescue, election monitoring, maritime security tasks involving law enforcement across the spectrum and national security requirements,” said Commander Baker
“It’s not just about fish and these patrol boats are a huge resource, and in some countries the only resource, that allows them to enforce in their economic zones.”
The Solomon Islands has two of the ageing boats – ‘Auki’ and ‘Lata’ – which will soon be replaced by Australia.
“This boat is purposely donated to us to look after our EEZ and main focus is to monitor the foreign fishing vessels,” said the captain of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Vessel ‘Lata’, Senior Sergeant Harold Reggie.
“They’re pretty much scared (of us). We usually go out for 10 days and Solomon Island EEZ one of the biggest, so we go quite far, 1,000 nautical miles in patrols.
“During our duties we come across a lot of different foreigners, fishermen. It’s really a hard job, we find it very interesting at times,” he said, declining to discuss specific incidents.
The FFA centre also coordinates large annual fisheries enforcement operations involving the defence personnel and hardware of the QUAD – United States, Australia, New Zealand and France.
Operation Kuru Kuru is the biggest and also targets transnational crime. Last year’s was the largest operation yet, involving more than 400 personnel over 10 days boarding 112 vessels.
Enforcing the region’s tuna fishing licensing scheme, that all the Pacific countries have signed up to, ensures they receive substantial income.
“There are a huge number of benefits. First off, food security for the region is in Australia’s national interest,” said commander Baker.
“The funding and money that comes into the countries from the sale of fishing licences, some countries are dependent on that funding for their very government survival.
“We also have a role to play in regional leadership with biodiversity and sustainment.”
A recent report found about $800 million was lost in annual tuna revenues due to illegal, under reported and unregulated fishing (IUU), resulting in about $200 million loss for the Pacific governments.
The 4.78 million tonnes of tuna caught in region in 2014 was valued at $8 billion. More than 20,000 jobs in the Pacific depend on the industry.
“They’d be absolutely devastated in most cases (without it),” said Movick
“I’d say three quarters of membership would have serious problems without the level of fishing access revenues at this present time.
“In some countries, 90 per cent of government revenues (in Kiribati), 75 per cent, more than 40 per cent in a significant proportion of our membership.”
Australia has experienced the expense of a breakdown of regional stability, funding the A$2.6 billion dollar RAMSI peacekeeping mission to the Solomon Islands for a decade up to 2013 after five years of civil unrest saw it compared to a ‘failed state’.
Australian funding for the FFA is difficult to quantify but amounts to around $10 million dollars per year in direct funding to FFA operations and its programs.
Supplementary costs including operation and maintenance of the current Pacific patrol boat fleet, the $300 million patrol boat replacement programme currently underway, a newly funded $11 million civilian aerial surveillance program and $2.4 million to implement the Niue Treaty Subsidiary Agreement.
“If you take into account all the Australian defence commitment to the Pacific Island countries, the patrol boat programme, yes, Australia is by far the largest donor (to the FFA),” said Movick.
The potential broader role for the agency comes as seven Pacific nations have ratified the Niue Treaty Subsidiary Agreement.
It creates the legal framework for a wide range of transnational fisheries surveillance and law enforcement activities, including sea patrols, aerial surveillance, port inspections, investigations and information sharing.
Australia is in the final stages of signing the agreement after it was scrutinised by a federal parliamentary committee in May.
“The department anticipates being in a position for Australia to accede to the Agreement in the first half of 2017 subject to final approval by government,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. SOURCE: SBS/PACNEWS [/restrict]