The Value of Ship Rider Agreements in the Pacific

By James Hurndell

The Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau and China coast guard vessel 2102 steam alongside each other during the transfer of the fishing vessel Yin Yuan in the North Pacific Ocean on June 3, 2014. Source: Coast Guard News' flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau and China Coast Guard vessel 2102 steam alongside each other during the transfer of the fishing vessel Yin Yuan in the North Pacific Ocean on June 3, 2014. Source: Coast Guard News’ flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work

In early December the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), which includes Pacific Island nations and major distant-water fishing nations, failed to agree on new measures to conserve Pacific tuna stocks. The inability to achieve consensus on new restrictions increases the importance of monitoring and enforcing existing limits. The small island states within whose exclusive economic zones (EEZ) the majority of fishing occurs do not possess the capacity to ensure compliance with existing regulations or prevent third party countries from conducting illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Ship rider agreements with the United States and others have helped bridge this capability gap, and greater attention should be paid to enhancing and expanding them. Ship rider agreements allow for an enforcement official from a Pacific Island host country to ride along on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter patrolling within its EEZ. The official thereby empowers the U.S. Coast Guard to enforce the laws of his or her country—something the host country often cannot do itself.

The United States has ship rider agreements with the Cook Islands, Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Operations typically occur when U.S. Coast Guard ships are already patrolling nearby U.S. waters and high seas.

Under these agreements, the U.S. Coast Guard has conducted up to 70 days of patrols annually in the Pacific. These have produced results and, in one well publicized occasion, led to a $4 million dollar fine being handed out by Kiribati. But there is only so much one coast guard cutter can do. The WCPFC vessel monitoring system has since 2009 registered 6,000 different vessels as being involved in fishing in in the area controlled by the WCPCF, which amounts to 20 percent of the earth’s surface, and the value of IUU fishing in those waters is estimated at $1.5 billion a year.

The United States has negotiated an “enhanced” ship rider agreement with Palau and the Marshall Islands. The enhanced agreement allows for the United States to conduct enforcement without a local representative on board and for law enforcement officials to be embarked as ship riders aboard U.S. Navy vessels. Enhancing agreements with the rest of the Pacific would increase the tools available to combat IUU fishing, but would also present challenges due to sensitivities concerning sovereignty.

Another option is to expand ship rider agreements to involve the vessels of other countries, especially those that do not currently undertake fisheries enforcement. Fisheries monitoring and enforcement is an opportunity for emerging powers with expanding military capabilities to demonstrate their commitment to being responsible regional players. Allowing local officials to embark vessels while they patrol builds confidence.

The United States has set the standard and provided a model for cooperation which it should actively encourage others to follow.

Mr. James Hurndell is a researcher with the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.

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