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Eye in the sky

Tracking Pacific fish through aerial surveillance

Koror, Palau— In the Western and Central Pacific, fisheries management is crucial in ensuring healthy fish stocks and the well-being of marine ecosystems.

According to the PEW Charitable Trust, tuna catches in these waters totaled an estimated 2.7 million metric tons in 2016—the second-highest amount on record—and represented 56 percent of the global catch.

But challenges in patrolling the vast sea of the Pacific go beyond just ensuring that all that fishing is done legally.

And there are other crimes that pose a threat to maritime security on a daily basis, but small Pacific Island nations lack the technology or funding by to combat them. Previously unavailable aerial surveillance will change policing of crimes in this region.

The TSC Cessna arrived in Palau on Feb. 21. Photo by Richard Brooks

The Australian Department of Defense has begun an aerial surveillance service across the Central and Western Pacific region as part of the government’s $2 billion Pacific Maritime Security program, the agency announced Jan. 28. Once implemented, two long-range aircraft will provide up to 1,400 hours of aerial surveillance every year across the Western and Central Pacific region.

According to DoD, the surveillance, in conjunction with the Pacific Patrol program will provide targeted maritime patrol and enhance the ability of Pacific island countries to defend against regional maritime security threats such as transnational crime and illegal fishing.

In December 2017, testing was conducted in FSM and in February, test flights started in Palau as part of the aerial surveillance component of the multi-million dollar program that will enhance the Pacific region’s capabilities to combat illegal fishing.

A spokesperson from the Australian Defense said the new program “ will provide support for targeted, intelligence-driven maritime patrols and enhance the capacity of Pacific Island nations to protect their own resources.”

Flight permits from the Federated States of Micronesia were approved and the TSC Cessna arrived in Palau on Feb. 21. Initial flights are planned across the region to assess communication and surveillance processes with the Fisheries Forum Agency and patrol boats.

Aerial surveillance provides the eye in the sky. Previously maritime surveillance had to rely on patrol boats.

After Palau, FFA Director General James Movick said, testing will be conducted in Marshall Islands.

For now, limited testing is being conducted to ensure that the technology works well to the provide the central link for Pacific Fisheries networks which work to prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

“This surveillance is not just for fisheries. The same tools and same aircraft can also be used for broader surveillance activities,” Movick said.

He said the planes and technology can also be used for surveillance in curbing human trafficking, drug smuggling and fishermen robbing the reefs and other illegal activities.

“We are looking at the range of other illegal activities beyond fisheries and considering other technologies to address these challenges.

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