The recent seizure of a stateless ship in international waters 2,600 miles off Alaska's coast has spotlighted the challenge that the U.S. and other nations face in trying to crack down on illegal fishing, an activity that accounts for up to $23.5 billion a year in global economic losses.
Finding rogue vessels in the vast, open ocean can be difficult. But U.S. officials and some environmentalists say progress is being made, including multinational patrol and enforcement agreements and the potential for sanctions against countries that engage in illegal, unreported and unregulated, or IUU, fishing.
More countries are joining the efforts and awareness of the illegal fishing issue has grown in the U.S. and Europe, where patrons ask restaurants and shops for the source of their products. Efforts are being made to better track high-value products like bluefin tuna to ensure they were obtained legally, and to keep illegal products out, said Rebecca Lent, director of the Office of International Affairs for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.
Such efforts are important because "we can't be out there all the time, watching the boats," she said.
"I think there's been progress (but) we have to continue; you can't let your guard down," Lent said. "It's like any place where you might have crime or illegal activity. You just have to stay vigilant, if you will."
The seizure of the Bangun Perkasa was the first of a suspected illegal fishing vessel by the U.S. Coast Guard since 2008.
The ship was spotted by a Japanese aircraft Aug. 31 and seized by the Coast Guard Sept. 7 under an agreement that includes annual patrols of international waters of the Pacific to look for illegal driftnetting. High-seas driftnets are often referred to as "the wall of death" because they capture myriad species the pirates don't intend to use. The United Nations has banned driftnetting.
The driftnet on the Bangun Perkasa was about 10 miles long and crew members cut it in an attempt to flee, said Capt. Craig Lloyd, chief of response for the Coast Guard in Alaska. Authorities were able to stop the vessel but a second ship in the area got away, he said.
The Coast Guard reported that 30 tons of squid and about 30 shark carcasses were onboard the rat-infested ship. The vessel arrived near Dutch Harbor in Southwest Alaska last weekend after a laborious escort that included two Coast Guard cutters.
NOAA Fisheries must decide what to do with the ship and catch once the rats are eradicated and the boat is in good enough shape to be brought closer to shore. Alaska law forbids ships with rats from entering state waters.
The Coast Guard said the crew initially claimed the vessel was from Indonesia but Indonesian officials did not claim it. In the case of a stateless vessel, the U.S. can impose its own law, Lloyd said.
The 22 crew members are from China, Vietnam, Taiwan and Indonesia, the Coast Guard said. Authorities investigating the case are expected to forward their findings to the U.S. attorney's office.
Lloyd called the seizure a big win for the international community and for law-abiding fishermen. Still, statistics are elusive as to whether enforcement actions are having a significant impact on the problem.
The U.S. Commerce Department in a report to Congress this year said that since IUU fishing activities are generally carried out covertly, monitoring and detection are difficult.
Estimates suggest global economic losses due to illegal fishing could be as high as $23.5 billion a year, with the problem a particular concern in the waters off developing countries. John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, said losses to sub-Sahara Africa alone are estimated at more than $1 billion annually.
The toll taken by pirate fishing can't be overstated, he said: Fisheries are being depleted, many countries lack the resources to monitor and enforce illegal fishing in their waters, and large ships and powerful gear allow pirates to go farther out on the high seas, meaning that "fish literally have no place to hide."
He cited a concern with sharks, often targeted because they're prized for shark-fin soup. Sharks have low reproductive rates, he said, leaving them vulnerable if their numbers steeply decline.
Lent said her agency plans to propose expanding the definition of IUU fishing to include protections for sharks.
Earlier this year, the Commerce Department reported that it had identified six countries as having engaged in IUU fishing in 2009 or 2010: Colombia, Ecuador, Italy, Panama, Portugal and Venezuela. Twelve other countries were considered but either the allegations were refuted or the nations involved said they'd acted to address the concern.
Italy, Panama and four other countries -- France, Libya, China and Tunisia -- were identified in a 2009 report to Congress. But in each case of verified violations, the countries took action against the vessels or persons involved and showed proof of their own efforts, according to the Commerce Department.
Countries that do not comply run the risk of sanctions including a block on imports.
Hocevar said the federal government now has strong tools to hold other countries accountable if they're supporting illegal fishing. And he thinks NOAA is doing a good job in addressing the problem.
New technology to monitor vessels and attention to the issue by the United Nations helps too.
"But the fact is, we still have a multibillion-dollar problem on our hands," he said, "and we still have a long way to go."