20,000 Leagues Above the Sea

Jul 15, 2014

OPERATION DRIFTNET – Charged with monitoring and protecting the state of the vulnerable resources that lay below, Frank Snelgrove (below) hovers above the North Pacific Ocean in a CP-140 Aurora aircraft, monitoring the endless expanse of water for hours on end.

Frank Snelgrove stands near a CP-140 Aurora preparing for duty.

While the sea can appear infinite, particularly from his vantage point, Snelgrove, a Fisheries and Oceans Fishery Officer, knows that the species it contains are not. Despite international commitments to ensure its sustainability, there is mounting concern that unregulated fishing, among other issues such as climate change, has put the world’s oceans on a dangerous ­trajectory of decline. Snelgrove and his enforcement colleagues, alongside members of the Department of National Defence, have made it their mission to protect the ocean by putting a stop to illegal fishing.

For generations, the world’s oceans have provided some of the most nutritious and renewable food sources on the planet, and from it, important industries have been born – unfortunately, not all of them legal. There is significant money to be made from the ocean’s resources, and not everyone is as committed to safeguarding its future.

Nefarious Elements
That was made apparent last May, when a rogue Chinese vessel was finally apprehended after a harrowing six-day international pursuit. The decrepit, rust-infested vessel was first spotted on May 20th by Snelgrove, who was flying aboard the Aurora aircraft as part of an international annual operation, at exactly 42° 22'5" North and 154° 58'0" East, in the North Pacific Ocean.

“A combination of factors first led us to believe something was ‘off’ with this vessel,” Snelgrove recalls. “Available intelligence allowed us to classify this radar signature as a vessel of interest warranting closer investigation. We descended to have a closer look and were able to capture incriminating images indicating the vessel could be rigged for drift-netting. All told, it seemed to suggest that there was possibly something illicit at play, and I was determined to find out.”

A close fly-by revealed what appeared to be a vessel rigged to deploy its deadly cargo of illegal driftnets stored onboard and covered by tarps. The vessel was flying a Japanese flag, however Japanese officers on board the Aurora were able to quickly confirm that the vessel was not one of theirs.

After refusing to respond to numerous attempts to communicate in a multitude of languages, including other forms of international maritime signaling, the vessel made another feeble attempt at evading authorities, this time hoisting a simple yellow flag high above the ship – the mark of a quarantined vessel. Clearly, something was not right.

A suspected driftnet vessel with its crew photographed attending to its large net.

Unbeknownst to the vessel’s crew, Chinese officials participating in a joint patrol with the U.S. Coast Guard, also happened to be part of the enforcement operation and could not find any reports of a legitimate fishing vessel in the area that would match the ship’s description. The combined information was passed on to the mission’s Op Centre in Alaska and the U.S. Coast Guard jumped into action. It was clear that the suspect vessel needed to be inspected.

Weather, however, would complicate the situation. Strong currents and high winds meant that a pursuit, which should have taken a day, stretched into several.

As the U.S. Coast Guard pursued, the suspect vessel made one last attempt to avoid boarding by entering the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone.

It would not work. The vessel eventually re-entered international waters and submitted to a boarding. After being questioned, and presented with photographic evidence, its crew admitted to several illegal fishing practices, including dumping an illegal 3.3km driftnet that it had had onboard. The inspection also uncovered what appeared to be illegally caught salmon.

“Although the origin of the salmon seized as a result of this investigation has not yet been determined, the discovery of salmon on board the vessel is clear evidence that it remains a highly desirable species to those who have no regard for international measures that have been put in place to protect the sustainability of our oceans’ fisheries resources,” noted Gary Miller, Chief of Enforcement Operations in DFO’s Pacific Office. “It is only through the combined efforts of Canada and our international partners that we may one day see a Pacific Ocean free of the destructive impacts of large scale, high sea driftnets.”

The vessel has since been confiscated by Chinese authorities who have returned it to China, and an investigation by Chinese authorities is underway.

Operation High Seas Driftnet
The successful seizure was the result of a collaborative international effort, with much of the credit going to Canada’s annual North Pacific fisheries enforcement activities, dubbed Operation High Seas Driftnet. First launched in 1993 by Canada, under the auspices of the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC), the effort contributed to enforcing the United Nations’ moratorium on the use of high seas driftnets. The fishing nets, which can span the distance of several football fields, indiscriminately scoop up anything in their wake, killing thousands of untargeted marine mammals, turtles and sharks.

Unintended victims fall prey to the indiscriminate grasp of a large gillnet. Here, salmon and sea birds are caught in its netting.

Combined with other illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the toll these practices have taken on the ecosystem is enormous. Although it is difficult to quantify the magnitude of the economic impact, some experts estimate that up to 23 million tons of illegal product is being harvested every year – over and above the legitimate fisheries that are occurring – which can translate to upwards of $25 billion in lost global revenue.

International Community 
In spite of the UN ban, some vessels continue to fish inconspicuously with illegal driftnets, relying on covert and intentionally misleading practices. While these operators have adopted new and more sophisticated means to avoid detection, the international community has banded together to create a formidable force and, by all accounts, appears to be winning the war against illegal fishing.

Canada’s sophisticated, intelligence-based Operation High Seas Driftnet is a combined effort between Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Department of National Defence. It complements enforcement activities undertaken throughout the year by other members of NPAFC – namely the United States, South Korea, Russia, and Japan.

For about two consecutive weeks, strategically planned throughout Canada’s high threat periods, daily patrols supported by radar satellite technology scour the North Pacific High Seas in search of illegal activity. Other NPAFC (international commission) contributions complement these throughout the year over the high seas.

Operation Driftnet is a success thanks in large part to international ­collaboration. Seen here are Japanese ­fisheries officers participating in the Operation.

Early on, the operation benefited from a close partnership with the U.S. and was operated out of Alaska, but in 2012, Japan stepped in to provide a more strategic staging ground from Hakodate. The operation itself has also vastly improved thanks to new technology and combined intelligence. Whereas the operation initially flew over extremely large swaths of North Pacific Ocean, today’s efforts are far more targeted and strategic.

Aerial Surveillance is Key
A typical patrol day begins with a debrief that combines various intelligence from two main assets, namely satellite and aircraft radar, and automatic identification sensors (AIS), as well as various other sources. Partner countries provide supplementary information, such as sea surface temperature, species migratory patterns, and historical vessel movement. Armed with this information, the Aurora aircraft, which is particularly well-suited to this sort of operation, is deployed to the highest threat areas.

“As Canada’s only strategic maritime surveillance aircraft, the CP-140 Aurora is often used to patrol Canada’s coastlines, safeguarding our waters from foreign threats,” notes Lieutenant-Colonel Reid McBride of the Canadian Armed Forces. “Capable of flying more than 9000 km – or 5000 nautical miles – without re-fuelling, this multi-purpose aircraft is particularly well suited to the exercise.”

Once deployed, crew members will spend the next 10 to 12 hours conducting high-level surveillance, occasionally descending as close to 300 metres off the ocean’s surface to confirm targets or collect data.

CP-140 Aurora aircraft scans vessels for signs of IUU fishing.

The crew relies heavily on radar satellite and AIS data to help identify vessel locations, size and direction. Combined with experience and other intelligence products, the data collection allows officers to identify specific fishing fleets known to harbour illicit vessels and identify vessels of interest (VOIs). Once the VOIs are separated from the legitimate traffic, enforcement officials are able to better focus efforts on these suspicious vessels.

A Strong Deterrent
“Groups that would conduct illegal high seas driftnet fishing are quickly learning that we’re becoming very good at what we do,” says Blair Thexton, Intelligence Supervisor at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “Over the last five years, we’ve really honed our skills and better utilize the information and the capabilities that are available to us, which provides a very solid deterrence factor to those that would go out and conduct these very irresponsible methods of fishing.”

In the last 10 years, only four vessels have been seized through Operation Driftnet for illegal activity, down from 14 from the period between 1993 and 2000.

As a result of the dramatic decrease, some began to question whether the international initiative was still necessary.

“It is absolutely necessary,” Brent Napier, Chief of DFO’s Enforcement Programs in National Headquarters says unequivocally. “Our experience in Atlantic Canada has taught us much. A decrease in enforcement activity prompts a resurgence of illegal activity. We have to remain vigilant. Money is the incentive, and there is a lot of money to be made in illegal fishing, so we can’t give them any sort of opening. The cost to the economy, to the ecosystem and to the environment more broadly is just too high.”


According to Napier, the international cooperation has been a huge boon and has lightened the burden on any one nation.

“It’s just not feasible for one country to patrol the vast expanse of the North Pacific Ocean,” he explains. “Each country brings its own strength and its own expertise to the operation, allowing us to leverage all of them for optimal effect. Canada is extremely grateful for the increasing levels of international collaboration and the success it has brought us.”

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is mandated to protect Canadian oceans and waterways.

Photos courtesy of DFO.
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