On an Aurora aircraft over the Pacific Ocean, June, 2006.

 Shemya Island, on the far western edge of Alaska, is about the last place you’d expect to find Canadian law-enforcement agents. But dozens of Canadian fisheries and military officials are working from the desolate Aleutian island this week as Canada takes its yearly turn at being beat cop on the high seas.

Not so long ago, Shemya was on the edge of the world’s last true wild west. For decades, within the millions of square kilometres between the Aleutians and Japan, as many as 700 boats plundered the lawless North Pacific, fishing for salmon with driftnets.

Today, only a handful of illegal boats remain, and they’re hunted by a high-seas posse of Russian, U.S., Canadian, Japanese, South Korean and Chinese officers, who take turns patrolling the area, sharing each other’s ships and technology, from spring to fall.

“We now catch everyone,” said Canadian fisheries scientist Richard Beamish, of the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C. “Particularly because of the concern the U.S. has about terrorism, we’ve essentially eliminated high seas [illegal fishing] of Pacific salmon.”

Canada’s contribution this year includes two long-range Aurora airplanes, patrolling from the U.S. Eareckson Air Station at Shemya.

Canadian Auroras are as long as the vast Hercules cargo aircraft but are shaped like slim torpedoes. The planes can travel more than 9,000 kilometres and stay aloft for 14 hours before refuelling. (Air crews jokingly dub them “sleek greyhounds of death” or “big grey Winnebagos,” because of their extensive kitchens.)

Two Auroras, from Comox, B.C., and Greenwood, N.S., began work at Shemya this past Thursday, flying a Canadian military crew with fisheries officers from several countries on daily patrols over the vast area.

Using shipping records, international intelligence and the Auroras’ radar and high-tech imaging equipment, the planes inspect several suspicious small ships in a 250,000-square-mile area each day, Canadian Air Force Major Jeff Byam said.

They’re looking for signs of illegal driftnets. The nets, which can stretch as long as 20 km, are woven from see-through synthetic fibres and are dubbed “walls of death” by environmentalists because of their disastrous impact on sea creatures.

“Everything gets caught . . . whales, seabirds, tuna, porpoises and dolphins, salmon, sea turtles, albatross,” said Robert Martinolich, chief of enforcement with the Canadian Fisheries Department on the West Coast.

The Canadian Auroras (relics of the Cold War, originally built to hunt submarines from Russia) cruise at an altitude of 27,000 feet. At about 300 feet above the waves, the plane buzzes the targeted ship, so the plane’s crew can take photographs and seek traces of the long fishing nets, which often have radio transponders at each end.

Suspect vessels are boarded by a military or coast guard ship from the nearest country. If illegal fish are found, the ship is seized, crew members (most of whom come from China and the Philippines) are sent home, and in some cases the owner and ship officers are jailed.

The concerted, organized patrols are paying off. Last year, the international forces found just five illegal driftnet boats. In 1998, an estimated 700 illegal boats fished the region.

“Between satellites and overflights, you have a co-ordinated effort over the North Pacific,” Dr. Beamish said.

The impressive results of the international patrols provide a rare good-news story for the world’s marine environment, in which scientists estimate 52 per cent of all sea creatures are being fished at full capacity, while another 24 per cent are overfished, endangered or effectively extinct.

The international management and enforcement in the North Pacific is a model for much of the rest of the world, Mr. Martinolich said.

“Seventy-five per cent of oceans are beyond any national jurisdiction,” said Joshua Laughren, a director of marine conservation for the World Wildlife Fund Canada, which lobbied for the UN ban on driftnets. “Conserving oceans means co-operating among countries. This is an example of the kind of contribution we ought to be making.”

In the 1990s, officials estimated that more than 16.4 million kilograms of illegal North Pacific salmon were shipped annually to ports in Canada and the United States. Mr. Martinolich said the fish was repackaged and shipped to foreign markets, and because North American seafood was considered good quality, the fish packaged as legally caught salmon would receive “close to 10 times the price it would have sold at as illegally caught.”

The illegal fishing damaged the marine environment, stymied management of migratory salmon stocks and swamped markets for legally caught fish.

In the heyday of illegal fishing, Mr. Martinolich recalled, the driftnet gear was frequently lost or abandoned. So the nets continued to “ghost fish,” filling with sea creatures, sinking to the bottom until the animals rotted, then surfacing and repeating the process.

But after the United Nations banned high-seas driftnet fishing in 1992, and international relations relaxed with the end of the Cold War, Russia, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Canada joined forces to police the North Pacific. More recently, China has become unofficially involved.

Copyright © 2006 Deborah Jones

Originally published by the Globe and Mail, June 07, 2006

References and further reading:
Driftnet fisheries and their impacts on non-target species: a worldwide review (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations)