The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
In Interior Alaska, hundreds of miles from the ocean, it’s a safe bet most people aren’t concerned about pirates. But as a state, pirates — specifically pirate fishing vessels — are a source of great consternation. Each year, billions of dollars in illegally harvested fish appears on world markets, causing serious financial harm to places like Alaska, where fishing is strictly regulated and commercial operators play by the rules or face strong fines, sanctions and even potential jail time depending on the nature of their offenses. A new bill signed into law by President Barack Obama last month will bring international focus to the issue of pirate fishing — and doing the lifting in Congress was Alaska’s delegation.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced the Senate’s version of the pirate fishing bill, which would ratify a 2009 international treaty related to the practice. She was joined by junior Alaska U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan as a sponsor, and Rep. Don Young was a sponsor of the house version of the bill.
The bill and treaty seek to create a master list of vessels participating in the commercial fishing trade around the world, barring port access for vessels identified as having trafficked in illegally caught fish. Like most international treaties, it only works if all the relevant nations get on board, and there’s been some movement in this direction already. As of late October, a dozen countries and the European Union had signed on — the U.S. now joins that list.
Pirate fishing has long been a problem in Alaska. A prominent recent example was the Bangun Perkasa, an unflagged fishing boat interdicted off the Aleutian Islands in 2011 carrying 30 tons of illegally caught squid and a sizable population of rats. Like many pirate fishing vessels, the Bangun Perkasa had been driftnetting — sweeping the ocean with a miles-long net, catching and killing marine species indiscriminately and tossing back unmarketable fish and other sea creatures. As you can imagine, vessels fishing this way cause an incredible amount not only of economic damage to a fishery but also environmental damage to the ecosystem. And there are plenty of Bangun Perkasas that don’t get caught before offloading their catches.
The economic damage to Alaska doesn’t stop at the illegally caught fish that find their way to market. Since pirate fishing vessels are almost always unflagged, it falls to those who catch them — in the case of the Bangun Perkasa, the U.S. government — to deal with the vessels, their catch and their crew. After getting rid of the Bangun Perkasa’s squid, exterminating its rats, sending its crew members back to China and Indonesia and contracting out the scrapping of the derelict vessel, direct costs related to the vessel ran to more than a million dollars.
With those costs added to the $10 billion to $23 billion negative impact on fisheries worldwide from pirate fishing and coupled with the environmental devastation the vessels wreak, Alaska’s motivation to act is clear, and the state’s Congressional delegation did well by shepherding the pirate fishing bill to passage.
The bill in itself won’t solve the pirate fishing issue — there are clear financial incentives for the illegal fishing operations and governments more inclined to look the other way than the U.S. — but it applies a focus and pressure on the vessels that is an excellent place to start stemming the damage caused by such operations.