The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Oliver Berry returned home to Honolulu this week in time for holiday festivities following a 38-day expeditionary fishery patrol in the South Pacific.
The Oliver Berry's crew conducted 12 fisheries boardings, identified 16 fishery and safety violations and completed 18 community relation events while sailing from Honolulu to Kiribati, Samoa, the kingdom of Tonga and American Samoa during the 7,000-nautical-mile patrol before returning to its homeport on Tuesday, according to a news release.
The Coast Guard has increasingly focused on fishery enforcement missions as the world's fish stocks reach dangerously low levels and illegal fishing runs rampant. In 2020, the Coast Guard said illegal and unreported fishing had surpassed piracy as the most pressing security threat at sea, warning that "this exploitation erodes both regional and national security, undermines maritime rules-based order, jeopardizes food access and availability, and destroys legitimate economies."
The U.S. government also has sought lately to assert its presence in the Pacific islands after years of largely neglecting the region to focus on the Middle East, East Asia and Europe. But increasing Chinese efforts to court influence in the region have prompted a renewed interest in Pacific island nations from American policymakers.
During the first port call of the patrol at Kiritimati island, Kiribati, before refueling, the Oliver Berry crew delivered COVID-19 personal protective equipment donated by the Oahu-based U.S. Indo-Pacific Command's Office of Global Health Engagement. While patrolling Kiribati's ocean territories, the Oliver Berry coordinated with Kiribati law enforcement to provided patrol coverage looking for potential fishery violations.
This was the Oliver Berry's second visit to Kiribati this year. In July the Coast Guard cutter spent two days delivering clean water and sanitation supplies to the island nation as it suffered from a severe drought after less than expected rainfall. Later that month the Coast Guard's Honolulu-based buoy tender CGC Juniper delivered more than 4,000 gallons of clean water.
Kiribati, about 2,400 miles south of Hawaii, in recent years has become the site of geopolitical competition as Chinese influence has grown. In 2019 Kiribati President Taneti Maamau cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and signed on to China's Belt and Road initiative, a network of Beijing-funded infrastructure projects.
Among planned upgrades is the renovation of a former U.S. military airfield from World War II. Some analysts charge that China's plans for Kiribati are "dual use "—supporting civilian and military endeavors — but Chinese and Kiribati officials insist plans are purely geared toward infrastructure and business. In a virtual address to the Pacific Islands Forum in July, Vice President Kamala Harris announced new investments in the Pacific, including a new embassy in Kiribati.
After refueling in Kiribati, the Oliver Berry's next port call was Apia, Samoa. It was the first port visit to Samoa by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter since 2018. In March the Samoan government announced it had signed a bilateral agreement with China promising "greater collaboration, " but many of the details are unclear.
During the port call, the crew of the Oliver Berry opened up the vessel for tours for partner maritime organizations and students. The crew also delivered school supplies and hygiene products donated by the crew and the Honolulu Chief Petty Officers Association, attended a meeting with students from Samoa's National Maritime School to discuss life at sea and participated in a beach cleanup around the harbor of Apia.
Many Pacific island nations have no navy or coast guard of their own and rely on the assistance of countries that do to help protect their waters. During the Oliver Berry's time in Samoa and Tonga, the crew took local law enforcement officers on board to conduct joint operations in their respective fisheries.
"The importance of exercising U.S. Coast Guard Bilateral Law Enforcement Agreements with our Pacific Island partners can't be understated," Oliver Berry's commanding officer, Cmdr. Micah Howell, said in the news release. "These agreements allow us the opportunity to strengthen our partnerships and work closely with our maritime counterparts to collectively ensure maritime governance and security across the Blue Pacific."
The Oliver Berry's crew worked with officers from Samoa's Maritime Police Department and its Fisheries Department aboard the vessel patrolling Samoan waters for two days, conducting four boardings and identifying six safety and fisheries violations on foreign and Samoan-flagged vessels. Oliver Berry completed two boardings and identified one violation alongside officers from the Tongan navy and Tongan Police Department.
Oliver Berry also patrolled international waters in the South Pacific to enforce measures outlined by the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. But crime on the open ocean has proved incredibly hard to document and even harder to prosecute. According to the Coast Guard news release, the Oliver Berry's crew conducted four boardings but was able to definitively document only one fisheries violation.