• Canada's Operation High Seas Driftnet was first launched in 1993, and contributed to enforcing the United Nations’ moratorium on the use of high seas driftnets. This is the kind of vessel that the operation looks for. (Photo: courtesy Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

By Nathalie Trépanier, Senior Communications Advisor, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

“People don’t always realize how truly vast the ocean is,” says Judy Dwyer, director of enforcement operations at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). But although the ocean can appear limitless, she notes that its resources are not.

For conservation and protection officers, protecting those resources can take on many different forms. Illegal fishing is one of the greatest challenges to ensuring the sustainability of ocean resources.

Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing not only takes a very significant toll on the ecosystem, it robs billions of dollars from the global economy. Canada’s increasingly strategic and intelligence-based approach to counter this threat has made it an internationally-recognized leader, with some developing countries now looking to it for guidance.

“Every country has illegal fishing to some extent of course and the well-developed and well-resourced countries like Canada, US, UK, Australia are seen as exemplars in this field,” says Cephas Ralph, the head of compliance for Marine Scotland and chairperson of the International Monitoring Control and Surveillance Network. “It’s important that they come and participate in (international) events and show what’s possible.”

For Canada, the possibilities have grown exponentially.

“We have really honed our skills and adapted to new technologies,” notes Blair Thexton, an intelligence supervisor at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “It has helped us become far more effective and individuals who would normally engage in this sort of irresponsible activity are quickly learning that we are becoming very good at what we do, which has really tipped the scale in our favor.”

Of course, international cooperation has also played a key part.

“It’s just not feasible for one country to patrol the vast expanse of the North Pacific Ocean,” Brent Napier, chief of the DFO’s enforcement program, explains. “Each country brings its own strength and its own expertise to the operation, allowing us to leverage all of them for optimal effect.”

On the North-West Pacific high seas, the international contribution is coordinated through the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC). Its primary goal is to eliminate the use of illegal driftnets. First launched in 1993 by Canada under the auspices of NPAFC, Operation High Seas Driftnet, as it would be dubbed, 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.

Combined with other illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the toll these practices have taken on the ecosystem is enormous. In spite of the ban, some vessel owners continue to inconspicuously use illegal driftnets, relying on covert and intentionally misleading practices.

Despite illegal fishing’s adoption of 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. In the last ten years, only four vessels have been seized through Operation High Seas Driftnet for illegal activity, down from 14 from the period between 1993 and 2000.

For about two consecutive weeks strategically planned throughout the high threat periods, daily patrols, supported by radar satellite technology, scour the North Pacific High Seas in search of illegal activity. The 2014 operation culminated with the apprehension of a rogue Chinese vessel following a harrowing six-day international pursuit. 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,” says 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. An investigation by Chinese authorities is underway.

“Our efforts are generally paying off,” explains Allan MacLean, the director general of conservation and protection at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “In [the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization], Canada is absolutely seen as a leader in fisheries conservation and protection and it is having an impact. It has been very rewarding. We have been entrusted with a very important responsibility and no one here takes that lightly.”