By NETANI RIKA, Pasay City, the Philippines
DESPITE its promise to address the issue of illegal fishing the Pacific, Vietnam has found itself out in the cold at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission for the second year in a row.
Desperate to be included among the membership of the world’s largest fishery, the Vietnamese have been thwarted by their inability to control the ubiquitous blue boats which plunder regional reefs of beche de mer and clams.
Last year at Denarau, Fiji, Vietnam promised to exert greater control over illegal fisheries by its fleet.
But on Day One of the 14th WCPFC here, news broke of the interdiction of two more blue boats, this time by French authorities in New Caledonian waters after an extended surveillance exercise.
“We find this unacceptable,’’ said Manuel Ducrocq, Head of Delegation for New Caledonia.
“These blue boats are reef rapists. They take sharks from within the shark sanctuary without consideration for biological conditions and the importance of species to the eco-system.”
The most recent blue boat interdiction revealed that Vietnamese fishermen had taken shark skins and fins along with beche de mer and giant clams.
A total of 10 tonnes of beche de mer in 58 drums were seized by the French Navy from two blue boats. The captains of the vessels have been convicted and fined by the local magistrate in Noumea.
But the cost of the illegal activities goes much further than what the poachers take.
Ducrocq said that by law French authorities were obliged to accommodate and feed the arrested crews and later pay for their repatriation to Vietnam.
“For 12 crew members we are obliged by French law to see that they are accompanied by 15 police officers,” Ducrocq said.
“So not only do we have the cost of surveillance, the interdiction and then their accommodation but in addition we must pay 15 return airline tickets for our police to ensure these people arrive in Vietnam.
“That is a huge cost which is borne by the government and cannot be recovered.”
French authorities estimate that the most recent infraction by the Vietnamese will cost them around $USD1.5million.
While blue boat activities have no direct link to tuna fisheries and the 14th WCPFC, the inaction or inability of Vietnam concerning its fleet has implications on its status as a Co-operating Non-Member of the commission.
“If they cannot control small boats which poach smaller fish, then what about management of (the larger fishing) fleet?” Ducrocq asked.
“We’ve had discussions with Vietnam at a political level and it’s obvious that it’s hard for them to manage their coastal fisheries.”
The task is so hard that these small boats which can spend up to 30 days at sea are able to slip past their national patrols and enter the waters of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and New Caledonia.
In the most recent case two boats were spotted by French maritime patrol aircraft based at Tontouta International Airport in New Caledonia and tracked for two days before navy units were sent to intercept them.
“New Caledonia cannot accept that others come and take resources from our territorial waters,” Ducrocq said.
“It’s a violation of the rights of the native population.
“The (blue boat) activities come at a huge cost to communities which are highly dependent on the ocean resources. Their food security is directly threatened and there are livelihood issues at stake here for the native community.”
Ducrocq said the intention of the WCPFC was to allow Small Island Developing States – most of them much more vulnerable than New Caledonia – to manage their resources.
“For the native population the sea is their refrigerator,” Ducrocq said.
“They take what they need and leave the rest for later and in this way they maintain the ecological balance.
“But poachers threaten the maintenance of that balance and now we find they are even targeting uninhabited island resources.”
In its effort to achieve cooperation through consensus, the collective WCPFC membership is often reluctant to take punitive measures against members and partners.
However, Vietnam’s consistent failure to address Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing outside of the tuna fisheries has forced New Caledonia to look at taking unprecedented action.
“If Vietnam’s response (to the blue boats issue) is not sufficient, we may have to review its status at the WCPFC,” Ducrocq said.
“We are waiting to see whether they are serious or not. We must think positively and Vietnam has a unique opportunity here to make a change.”
Given that its last response was to deny any responsibility for illegal activities conducted by private sector fishing fleets, it’s difficult to see Vietnam taking harsh measures against the blue boats.
History shows that Vietnam will most likely claim inability to monitor and police illegal operators.
And that will mean it continues to be seen by the region as a villain whose only place at the next WCPFC will be out in the cold.