Skilled fisheries officers a critical part of effective port state measures, as Marshall Islands charge shows

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Fisheries officer checks documents on a fishing vessel that seeks access to the port of Majuro, Marshall Islands. Photo Francisco Blaha.
Fisheries officer Beau Bigler crosschecks ship documentation as a fishing vessel seeks authorisation to use the port of Majuro. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

There is a lot written by many fisheries organisations in the world about the port state measure (PSM), from the FAO PSM Agreement, to the WCPFC PSM CMM and IOTC PSM CMM, to FFA’s developing PSM framework.

Yet, operationally, for a country, the whole point of PSMs is to avoid the use of its ports for the unloading of fish caught in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing operations by vessels both foreign and domestic. 

One does not need to read every word in a document with a lawyer’s loupe or sign agreements to start operations. You just start working it out in your own time and at your own pace. There is no need to have all the papers lined up and all the standard operation procedures written before you start doing something.

‘Doing something’ may entail fisheries authorities changing the way the port operations are conducted. Training by doing takes time, resources will need to be mobilised, routines need to be created, and so on. Many aspects of the day-to-day work cannot be foreseen by doing a one-week workshop, attending some meetings, and expecting all things to be right. You need to start, and to learn by doing – and for that you do not need to sign any high-level document. 

Anyone working in compliance has learned that there is only one thing worse than not signing a piece of paper: it is to sign it and then not be able to comply with it. 

All countries do understand the importance of signing on to international commitments. Still, they are also aware, on a daily basis, of the limitations faced, particularly when small countries blessed with good natural ports are taking on the on the job of controlling vessels. 

This is a job that ought to be shared with the flag states, yet that is not always the case. For example, many port states in the western and central Pacific region inspect more vessels from distant water fishing nations (DWFN) than the vessel’s own flag state authorities do.

Routine PSM operations pay off

Yet, when you start doing PSM routinely, it pays off. The recent case of the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority (MIMRA) is the perfect example. In February, it charged a Korean longliner for fishing in Marshall Islands waters without a valid licence. The charge was based on best PSM practices.

MIMRA’s PSM strategy focuses on intelligence analysis around the identity, licensing and operations of arriving vessels before they are authorised to use the port.

image of newspaper story on charges laid in Marshall Islands against a Korean longline fishing vessel
The Marshall Islands Journal report on charges being laid against the Korean longliner

The operations part requires them to analyse the ship’s movement before it enters port. This is done by looking at its vessel monitoring system (VMS) track. Yet it is one thing is to look at VMS track, and another is to understand the behaviour of a particular type of vessel based on gear deployment and manoeuvring. 

While VMS may give you a good indication of what happened at a time and place, sometimes it does not suffice as evidence. So, once on board, the officer needs to know what to look for and where to find it, so they can collect definitive evidence that cannot be disputed. 

Accurate analysis of ship’s documents also needed

The types of supplementary evidence that make cases watertight include logbooks (captains’ and chief engineers’), temperature records, onboard GPS plotters, and buoy-recovery marks, among other types of vessel information. 

Furthermore, the active conduct of the boarding officers shows the captains that they know their job. In most cases, captains accept this, and accept the charges to cut their losses.

And this is exactly what my colleagues in Majuro have done with the FV Oryong 721. Officer Beau Bigler identified the offence during the manoeuvring analyses that are part of the routine intelligence report prepared for every vessel intending to enter Majuro. He took notes on time and place, and once on board went straight to the bridge and collected evidence from documentation written and instruments operated by the captain, making the evidence really hard to dispute.

Photo from above and behind of man checking documentation on ship. Photo Francisco Blaha.
Fisheries officer Beau Bigler crosschecks ship documentation with relevant findings in the arriving-vessels intelligence analysis for a purse seiner intending to gain authorisation to tranship in Majuro. This is done for every vessel intending to use the port. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

The charging of the vessels (the last one of four the past two years) is a total win for the PSM team in MIMRA. It is one you get by understanding how different fishing vessels operate, and what and where info is recorded and stored on board. 

Add to that the dedication of competent officers, and we have PSM that does work and produce results without having to sign – for now – any big documents … simple as that.