Posted : Thursday Jun 21, 2012 9:26:46 EDT
SAN DIEGO — Before its final leg home from deployment, the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group got a new mission: patrol and secure protected fishing areas in the southern Pacific.
While that mission is routine to the Coast Guard, it was the first time an aircraft carrier was involved in fighting illegal fishing in Oceania, a vast region northeast of Australia.
The efforts of the Carl Vinson, which returned home last month, is the latest example of a Navy mission expected to grow in the Pacific.
Officials say Oceania is important not only to U.S. economic prosperity, but also 22 Pacific island nations financially dependent on their local fisheries. A key area is what’s known as the “Tuna Belt,” which runs along the equator and supplies 57 percent of the world’s tuna.
Many livelihoods are threatened by illegal fishing, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Morin, incident management branch chief with the Coast Guard’s 14th District in Honolulu.
“There’s about $1.7 billion annually that is lost to illegal fishing [in Oceania],” said Morin.
The Coast Guard’s limited assets make it tough for constant air and sea patrols to enforce maritime laws in Oceania.
In 2009, the Navy first began assisting the Coast Guard in the Oceania Maritime Security Initiative, or OMSI, as the Hawaii-based frigate Crommelin joined the Coast Guard for fisheries patrols as it traveled to the western Pacific. Nearly a dozen ships have joined in the mission since.
Carl Vinson and its embarked carrier air wing, along with the cruiser Bunker Hill and destroyer Halsey, participated May 7-15 in OMSI. It marked the Navy’s biggest support of the mission yet. The Vinson’s jets, turboprops and helicopters flew more than five dozen sorties patrolling the region.
“Our job was to assist the Coast Guard by increasing maritime domain awareness in support of the maritime law enforcement operations,” said Capt. John Steinberger, commodore and commander of San Diego-based Destroyer Squadron 1 aboard the Vinson.
The Coast Guard conducted all law enforcement operations, which included vessel boarding, and the Navy provided the intelligence, said Lt. Cmdr. Sylvaine Wong, Carrier Strike Group 1’s judge advocate general.
Much fishing occurs in exclusive economic zones, or EEZs, belonging to specific countries. Zones extend 200 nautical miles from the coastline and cover all natural resources, such as fishing, exploration, mining and conservation. Fishing vessels require a license and permit. Oceania has 43 percent of the U.S.’s EEZs, covering 1.3 million square miles — more than twice the size of Alaska.
Demand expected to grow
There’s growing suspicion that depleted tuna stocks in other parts of the Pacific have lured illegal boats to Oceania. The island nations and other territories imposed stricter rules in 2009, but enforcing such laws across the vast area is difficult because countries have few aircraft and boats that can patrol long and far.
“I believe this is an enduring mission for both 7th Fleet and 3rd Fleet,” Steinberger said. The larger U.S. focus on the Asia-Pacific region “is probably going to allow more effort to be placed with OMSI as more vessels come into play here.”
Morin said Coast Guard officials are planning to deploy the first Coast Guard law enforcement teams aboard a destroyer or cruiser to Oceania as early as November.
The idea is to tap existing assets such as Coast Guard cutters, Navy ships and the local fleet of Australia-led Pacific patrol boats to broaden patrols of Oceania’s fisheries.
It also improves national security, Morin said, adding that “it’s not just about the fish. There are some bad players that don’t play by the rules and don’t pay for permits.”
Unlike previous missions involving single ships, Vinson and its escort ships were heading to Hawaii on separate tracks, which increased the breadth of surveillance and patrols over areas stretching 300 miles. The Coast Guard also got extra legs with a P-3 Orion turboprop, which traveled 1,000 miles to join in the mission.
In nine days, the strike group provided almost 35 percent of all contacts and vessel data OMSI missions have collected since it began in 2009, Steinberger said.
“It goes to show you just the power the strike group brings to bear,” he said. “It’s not just an offensive weapon.”
During the mission, the strike group staff aboard Vinson got daily taskings from the OMSI team, which included Morin, who boarded the carrier in Australia.
From there, they would build a surveillance plan and collect as much information from the contacts made, said Lt. Cmdr. Edward McLellan, CSG-1’s assistant intelligence officer.
Cmdr. Edward Padinske, CSG-1’s intelligence officer, said the hardest part of the mission was trying to identify legal ships versus illegal ones.
Control over fishing and other resources has pitted one country against others in some places, most notably the South China Sea, where China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam all lay claims.
Officials say such confrontations in Oceania are rare, however.
“These are well established economic zones,” Padinske said. Countries, including the U.S., “are essentially trying to protect their livelihood.”
Vessels that skirt the law “are essentially stealing … the long-term economic viability of these smaller Oceania region countries,” he said. “I suspect as this mission becomes more widely known, we’ll be able to do some more creative things, like plan our tracks through some areas where intelligence would indicate there’d be more illegal fishing vessels.”
Steinberger said the help the Navy has provided “is going to energize this function.”
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