Marine surveillance operation involving 4 countries seizes two Filipino vessels in Palau

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Illegal fishing vessels seized by the Palau Marine law enforcers. The vessels are from the Philippines and found in Palau waters in the last six months. Photo by Richard W. Brooks

The recent marine surveillance work that seized two Filipino vessels found in Palau waters underscored the need for government to mobilise its resources and collaborate internationally to combat illegal fishing in its waters.

Operation Kaukledm 2 in Palau’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) involved four countries: Palauan Pacific Class Patrol Boat PSS President H I Remeliik, Japanese Fisheries Agency Ship Mihama, US Coast Guard Cutter Assateague, and a surveillance aircraft chartered by the Australian Defence Cooperation program.

Kaukledm means “working together.” The joint operation by the aircraft and three ships searched the entire Palau EEZ (750,000 square kilometres) over the eight-day period, which concluded on May 11.

Local Palau aircraft and the three vessels help man Palau’s EEZ during Operation Kaukledm 2. The operation was made possible through the cooperation between Palau, U.S. Australia and Japan. Photo by Richard W. Brooks

The aircraft used in the operation was a local small plane from Pacific Mission Aviation, a not for profit organisation with offices in Palau.

Japan’s ship Mihama patrols Palau’s waters as part of the bilateral cooperation between Japan and Palau.

The US Coast Guard Cutter Assateague is operating under the Ship-Rider program whereby US vessels can enforce Palauan law in the Palau EEZ as long as they have an officer from Palau’s Division of Marine Law Enforcement (DMLE) onboard.

As a result of the operation, Palau’s patrol boat Remeliik detained two Filipino vessels believed to be involved in fishing activities within the Palau waters in violation of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act (PNMS). The detained vessels included one purse seiner with 16 crew, and a fish carrier with 8 crew.

The fish carrier can carry as much as 42 tons of fish and when seized it had at least 20 tonnes of fish on board, mostly Skipjack and Yellowfin tuna.

No fishing gear was found onboard.

Vice President and Justice Minister Raynold Oilouch said that on the weekend of May 6, the vessels were apprehended, boarded and escorted to the Marine Law Dock at Malakal, Koror, Palau.

Instead of filing charges against the fishermen caught on board the seized vessels, the DMLE “took action to unload the fish and to repatriate back to the Philippines the fish carrier and its crew, along with the crew of the purse seiner, and other fishermen who have been held here for about 6 months,” a statement from the Vice President Office stated.

Oilouch said the decision to send the fish carrier back the Philippines was based on a number of reasons, including the strength of government’s case against the fish carrier and its owner(s), the increasing financial burden on the government for the continuing care of the fishermen while being held at Marine Law Dock, and the limited space at Marine Law Dock to hold increasing numbers of vessels.

He also said that most of the fishermen sent home has been in Palau for six months and had been sleeping and living in the seized boats during that time.

The fish carrier had to give up its haul of over 20 tons of fish and distribute free of charge to relevant government agencies, private schools and residents of Palau.

With the addition of the recently apprehended purse seiner, there are now three fishing vessels being detained at Marine Law Dock, two of which have been here for about six months with cases pending in court.

The Office of the Attorney General is now considering the type of action against the newly apprehended purse seiner. In any case, there are only nine Filipino crew members still remaining in Palau to keep watch over their vessels.

Palau’s waters, especially near its southern reefs, are currently threatened by over-fishing from boats from China, Indonesia, and particularly the Philippines.