In fighting a surprising burst of illegal drift net use on the high seas, the Coast Guard this month intercepted three fishing vessels from China and gathered evidence on two others using the so-called "curtains of death" northwest of Honolulu.
The enforcements over a three-week period are the first in the North Pacific since 2000 and the first in the region patrolled by Hawai’i-based Coast Guard vessels since 1997.
Cmdr. Dwight Mathers, the Coast Guard’s chief of maritime security in Honolulu, yesterday said officials can’t explain the sudden increase in drift net use, although it may have to do with the worldwide shortage of squid, which has driven up demand and prices for the catch.
The illegal vessels together held more than 70 tons of squid, he said, and lesser amounts of tuna and shark.
Drift nets longer than 1.5 miles are prohibited on the high seas under a 1992 United Nations General Assembly moratorium. Drift nets are used for tuna, salmon and squid. The fine nylon mesh nets are nearly transparent and are set below the surface to drift overnight. Up to 20 miles long, illegal drift nets indiscriminately catch whatever marine species they encounter.
Many Asian ships in the Pacific Ocean began using the nets to catch squid, tuna and other species, but the large incidental catch of dolphins, whales and unwanted fish sparked an international protest, leading to a U.N. moratorium on their use.
Two different Honolulu-based Coast Guard cutters, acting under the authority of a U.S.-China enforcement agreement and operating roughly 2,000 miles northwest of Honolulu, first intercepted a fishing vessel July 1, then another July 20, followed by a third two days later.
Officials were first tipped off to the possibility of drift net fishing in May when a Canadian patrol aircraft operating out of a U.S. Air Force base in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands spotted a vessel outfitted with drift net fishing gear. The surveillance flight is part of the international effort by the United States, Canada, Russia, Japan and South Korea to battle illegal drift net fishing in the North Pacific.
Surveillance flights were launched again in June and July, and boats in the U.S. fishing fleet working in the area also reported drift net activity, Mathers said.
The cutter Rush intercepted the Chinese fishing vessel Qi Dong on July 1. A team that included a Chinese fisheries law enforcement official boarded the vessel and found more than eight miles of illegal drift net and at least 50,000 pounds of squid.
At the request of the People’s Republic of China, the Rush disabled the illegal fishing gear and confiscated 393 bags of illegal fishing nets, location transponders, net floats and net-hauling winches, Mathers said.
The Qi Dong was ordered back to China and was later intercepted by Chinese fisheries enforcement vessels, which escorted it back to port.
On July 20, a team from the cutter Jarvis, accompanied by a Chinese enforcement official, boarded the fishing vessel Zhou Shun Yu 2002 about 2,300 miles northwest of Honolulu. More than six miles of drift net, 20 tons of squid, four tons of tuna, and several hundred pounds of sharkfin were found.
While escorting the illegal vessel on July 22, the Jarvis spotted three more vessels outfitted with drift net fishing gear 2,400 miles northwest of Honolulu and launched a helicopter to document the vessels.
A team from the Jarvis boarded the Chinese fishing vessel Lu Yu O1 and discovered more than the legal amount of netting and tons of squid, shark and tuna. The Jarvis escorted the final two detained vessels for more than 1,000 miles before meeting up with a Chinese law enforcement vessel on Monday.
Mathers said China and U.S. officials are investigating the possibility the illegal vessels were working in concert.
Source: Honolulu Advertiser