It has long been a bitter irony for the Coast Guard’s 14th District: the service’s smallest district, in terms of personnel, installations, and assets, has by far the largest area of responsibility – nearly half the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ; or waters that project 200 miles outward from the nation’s 90,000 miles of coastline.) The 14th District’s two sector commands, in Honolulu and Guam, are tasked with covering 12.2 million square miles of ocean, including remote commonwealths and territories such as the Northern Marianas and the islands areas of Wake, Jarvis, and Howland/Baker.
The waters of the Central and South Pacific often contain some of the world’s most valuable fish stocks, including the highly migratory bigeye and yellowfin tuna. Fortunately, the 14th has been creative about leveraging patrol and enforcement assets in the region, working closely with the nations that have significant assets in the area – Australia, New Zealand, and France. The Coast Guard also represents the United States to both the Pacific Islands Foreign Fisheries Agency and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), organizations that provide for cooperation and mutual boarding authority to promote the long-term conservation and sustainable use of these valuable fish species.
In the past year, the Coast Guard has established another valuable partnership that promises to extend its reach across the wide Pacific. In June of 2009, for the first time ever, Coast Guard law enforcement officers from the 14th District joined the crew of the USS Crommelin, a U.S. Navy frigate, to support fisheries enforcement in Oceania. While Navy ships are not yet legally authorized to participate in law enforcement activities, the 14th District’s Chief of Living Marine Resources, Lt. Cmdr. Jay Caputo, said the Navy’s transoceanic voyages provide a valuable set of eyes and ears, both on the high seas and within the EEZs of WCPFC member nations.
After sailors and Coast Guardsmen documented suspicious activity throughout the Crommelin’s voyage – photographing and recording vessel positions, and communicating via radio with vessel captains – the two service branches decided to take their partnership to the next level. The Coast Guard has since placed several more law enforcement officers aboard Navy ships in the Pacific.
“The Navy has wonderful organic assets,” Caputo said. “They have great radars and great aircraft that can patrol very large areas. So when we go through an area, we contact the country and say: Hey, we’re going to be going through. Is your patrol boat available? We’re going to see if we can find any vessels that aren’t licensed in your waters and are fishing. We’ve passed a couple of those along, and they’ve been investigated. I think the more we do this, the more prepared the Pacific Island countries are going to be to take some action.”
The future will likely bring closer cooperation between the Coast Guard and the Navy, Caputo said. The Coast Guard hopes to formalize the inclusion of Navy vessels within WCPFC-authorized joint patrols, and perhaps even receive authorization to enlist the Navy’s help in enforcing foreign incursions into U.S. EEZs in the Pacific.
Caputo realizes the legal obstacles to such an arrangement. The question, he said, is whether such patrols violate the Posse Comitatus Act, which limits the use of the military for law enforcement. While Caputo isn’t a lawyer, he points out that the Coast Guard already works closely with the Navy in counter-drug operations. “The primary goal [of using Navy assets within U.S. Exclusive Economic Zones] would be, if we found a foreign vessel fishing in our EEZ, we could take control of it right away. We’re less interested in using Navy ships for domestic enforcement, because our fishing vessels are already one of the most highly regulated fishing [fleets] in the world … in this area of Oceania, there’s so much distance that there’s a serious threat of illegal fishing, mostly from distant water nations. There’s no law enforcement out there.”