Nadi, Fiji- The Western and Central Pacific and Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) has been urged to address the growing influx of Vietnamese “blue boats” illegally fishing in many island nations, affecting local fishermen and their livelihood.
Blue boats from Vietnam are traditional wooden vessels that are all powered by small diesel or gasoline engines.
May 2016: One of Palau's near shore Marine Enforcement boats escorts an illegal Vietnamese fishing boat 12 miles off-shore where is will be burnt. Photo by Richard Brooks
“I think they are doing a very big damage. I mean we have found them in Australia, in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in Palau and Federated States of Micronesia, so if they have found them there, then they must be everywhere,” Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) CEO Ludwig Kumoru told Pacific reporters here ahead of the WCPFC annual meeting.
Although most of the crew of the blue boats come from Vietnam and from Vietnamese ports, Vietnam denies any responsibility.
“We have been informed by some other countries that Vietnamese vessels come to Palau or Micronesia to poach, we are not so sure that they are Vietnamese vessels, or that they are Vietnamese flagged,” Vu Duyen Hai, Vietnamese head of the delegation in WCPFC told reporters.
Hai said because the blue boats are not equipped with a GPS, they follow the fish and unintentionally enter the EEZ of other nations.
Blue Boats have been found as far south as Australia and as far east into the Pacific as New Caledonia, more than more than 7,000 kilometers from Vietnam.
For a fishing fleet to be eligible to conduct industrial fishing in the Pacific, its government must be a member of the WCPFC and show its willingness to take responsibility for enforcing international fishing rules.
Hai said Vietnam is keen to join but several WCPFC members impacted by the blue boats are not willing to accept Vietnam into the commission.
Federated States of Micronesia Head of Delegation Eugene Pangelinan said the problem of blue boats is being exacerbated by Vietnam’s failure to provide any regulation or control over boats that have been arrested in FSM waters.
“It is a matter that goes way beyond our imagination, that fleets which that which seems to be almost condone by flag states, that allow such a large number of vessels to go out beyond their monitoring capabilities or their ability to exercise their flagship obligations,” Pangelinan said.
Between December of 2014 and September 2016 the FSM arrested more than nine Vietnamese vessels and approximately 169 Vietnamese crew, according to a briefing distributed to media at this year’s Pacific Island leaders’ summit held in Pohnpei.
The FSM has borne the substantial cost of detecting the vessels, making the arrest, transporting them, feeding the crew members and then repatriating them Mr Pangelinan said.
These vessels “exploit some of the most vulnerable small islands developing states in the Pacific,” he said.
WCPFC chair Rhea Moss-Christian said it is an issue impacting members of the commission.
“It’s certainly an issue of concern because it relates to Illegal, Unregulated, Unreported (IUU) issues in general and impacts small island coastal states. We’ll wait to see what those members who are most affected have in terms of proposals or requests for the Commission this year, if any, to take action,” Christian said.
The commission is meeting in Fiji this week to discuss conservation and management measures in the world’s biggest fishery.
Action by Palau
In Palau, the government issued a stern warning that it will not tolerate poaching from the blue boats.
Since 2015, Palau has burned five boats caught illegally fishing within its waters.
An apprehended illegal Vietnamese fishing boat is burnt by Palau's Marine Enforcement division as a public deterrent.. Photo by Richard Brooks
“They travel in fleets and their target is sea cucumbers and their mode of operations is to wait for the cover of darkness and then move in to shallow waters just off shore and scour the reefs of all sea cucumbers and any fish they can get. This is a very destructive practice and it directly affects Palau's nearshore marine life, which are not only vital to our tourism industry but to the food security of our citizens as well,” Keobel Sakuma, Palau National Marine Sanctuary (PNMS) executive director told Pacific Note in an email.
He said that since 2014, Palau marine law enforcement officers have captured over 14 of these vessels.
Echoing Pangelinan’s statement, Sakuma said that the blue boats keep returning and its costing Palau a lot of money to keep the crew members.
“Apprehending, housing, prosecuting and repatriating these illegal fishermen heavily outweighed any fines collected from the captains and the owners as well as the Vietnamese government disavowed any responsibility for them as well,” Mr Pangelinan said
Blue boats are suspected to be active in Solomon Islands and Vanuatu as well as in Papua New Guinea, Australia, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia.
The 17-nation Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) is increasing its surveillance to assist nations impacted by blue boats to stop the poaching.
“As a regional agency, we recognize we have a responsibility to use regional platform and mechanism that we have to support these countries to better surveillance their zones and target these boats,” Director General James Movick said.
The FFA will bring affected countries together to discuss blue boats for the first time in the first quarter of 2017.