Fisheries ministers at their 17th Forum Fisheries Committee meeting earlier this month recognised the importance of aerial surveillance, including through the Pacific Maritime Security Program–Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (PMSP/FFA), after noting the increased risk of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
The Australian Department of Defence and FFA agreed to temporarily suspend the PMSP/FFA aerial surveillance programme in March 2020 due to the swift move by Pacific Island countries to restrict travel, coupled with the uncertainty and risks involved. The suspension was lifted on 1st July following gradual easing of travel restrictions and interest received from members to conduct maritime surveillance over their exclusive economic zones (EEZs).
FFA Director-General Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen, said the resumption of the PMSP/FFA aerial surveillance programme is welcomed and is especially important during this time, as recognised by Fisheries Ministers.
“With the impacts of COVID-19 restrictions on other forms of monitoring such as observer coverage, constant aerial surveillance is critical for Pacific Island countries to monitor their vast EEZs,” Dr Tupou-Roosen said.
“We note the strict COVID-related clearance protocols in place in the region and are working with the appropriate authorities to satisfy these protocols so as to continue to provide our members with the surveillance they require. One of the benefits of this programme is that in addition to our members being able to direct the aircraft in terms of where, when and what they would like to target IUU fishing, it also addresses other maritime security-related threats,” she added.
Since the lifting of the suspension, the aerial surveillance aircraft has been providing surveillance for Solomon Islands.
The Commander of RSIPF Maritime Division, Chief Superintendent Charles Fox Sau, noted that during this time, with the limited tools to monitor the large EEZ, the risk of not only IUU fishing but also other threats entering the EEZ are higher.
“We are grateful to the governments of Australia and New Zealand and to the FFA for providing aerial surveillance assistance, which is complementing our patrol boats in monitoring our borders — especially for the illegal entry of small craft,” Chief Superintendent Sau said.
During the FFC ministerial meeting, ministers made specific reference to the support provided by the FFA Secretariat to members through the use of the vessel monitoring system to contact-trace the movements of fishing vessels. This has been invaluable for ensuring border security and mitigating the risk of COVID-19 entering countries by sea.
Negotiations with Pacific Island countries interested in recommencing their aerial surveillance are currently underway.