A group of 370 U.S. and Ecuadorean service members exchanged experiences and knowledge to counter illegal fishing.
The U.S. and Ecuadorean navies brought together technical and human capabilities in the Pacific Ocean for a passing exercise (PASSEX), an exercise carried out between two navies to ensure communication and cooperation in times of war or humanitarian relief. The November 22nd PASSEX focused on preventing, deterring, and eradicating illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing that costs the fishing industry millions of dollars every year, and affects food security in many countries.
“The objective of the exercise was to develop competencies to improve response capabilities, update the doctrine, and increase interoperability between the two navies to detect and deter illegal fishing,” Ecuadorean Navy Rear Admiral Darwin Jarrín Cisneros, Naval Operations commander, told Diálogo. “The recurrent presence of foreign fishing fleets and will of the United States and Ecuador to counter this threat led to the completion of the exercise.”
Crews of several Ecuadorean aircraft, the Ecuadorean Navy’s missile boat Cuenca, and the Ecuadorean patrol boat Isla Española worked with the crew of the USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108), U.S. Coast Guard service members, and a P-8A Poseidon aircraft from the U.S. Navy’s Patrol Squadron 16 deployed to support U.S. Southern Command- (SOUTHCOM) sponsored initiative Enduring Promise 2018. The team responded rapidly and effectively to the scheduled naval activities.
Communication, a vital element
The exercise used standing procedures to monitor maritime activities in jurisdictional areas. “In other words, we contacted fishing vessels in the area through VHF [frequency] equipment, asking [identification] questions to later compare the information with the National Maritime Management System database,” Ecuadorean Navy Lieutenant Commander Renán Valladares, commander of the patrol boat Isla Española, told Diálogo. “We then carried out inspections of those contacts of interest on board.”
Two channels were used for communication: the primary channel to organize tactical maneuvers based on the Allied Maritime Tactical Signal and Maneuvering book, and a secondary channel for non-encrypted coordination. The ships immediately fell into a linear formation, and navigated that way for 30 minutes, while floating units and aeronaval resources maintained constant contact.
Participants carried out communication checks in port channels using the North Atlantic Treaty Organization terminology, complying with the organization’s Allied Maritime Tactical Instructions and Procedures. “We verified standardization of tactical procedures between units, and certified that both navies were able to interoperate under any maritime scenario,” Ecuadorean Navy Lieutenant Commander Mario Bonilla, commander of the missile boat Cuenca, told Diálogo. “During the PASSEX [exercise], no interdiction or boarding tasks were executed, only coordination among units.”
“The importance of the operations consists of improving the capacity of U.S. and Ecuadorean surface and aeronaval units for coordinated operations,” Lt. Cmdr. Valladares said. “As such, naval resources’ capabilities for command and control, mobility, and flexibility were integrated, increasing interoperability.”
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), illegal fishing affects 2.4 million people in the fishing and aquaculture industries in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as fish consumers. About 10 percent of the world population depends directly on fishing to earn a living. Also, illegal fishing affects one of every five fish caught, with an annual cost of $23 billion, the FAO indicated.
According to FAO, some 100 to 150 million sharks are captured and mutilated every year during shark finning, for example. The process could lead to the extinction of most species of sharks in the next decade nongovernmental environmental conservation groups, such as WildAid, warn. The unregulated practice, which involves cutting a shark’s fin off and returning the animal to the water to die of asphyxia, is widespread due to the demand for shark fins in countries like China, where they are used for their supposed medicinal benefits.
In August 2017, Ecuador detained a Chinese fishing vessel on protected waters in the Galapagos Islands with 6,600 sharks on board. Authorities detained the vessel’s 20 fishermen and sentenced them to four years in prison for illegal fishing. Although the Chinese government admitted the vessel was on protected waters with zero fishing tolerance, it denied any proof of the vessel’s activities fishing and transporting the animals.
“Operations against this threat represent a large economic effort because of the maritime jurisdiction area to cover and the naval and air resources required,” said Lt. Cmdr. Valladares. “Having the support of other countries with information, tactical exercises, and other resources will allow the activation of local procedures when necessary to interdict people and vessels [carrying out] illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.”
As risks associated with activities to counter illegal fishing are high, surface units must be trained and qualified to confront situations, such as uncooperative boarding, crisis management and escalation on board, progressive use of force, collision danger with naval units, and emergencies. “That’s why we should increase multinational operations with the United States and improve systems to monitor heavy-duty fishing vessels that prevent them from entering exclusive economic zones,” Lt. Cmdr. Bonilla said.
In addition to tactical exercises, considering the employment of multinational military forces is crucial. “Interoperability among navies helps maintain the force’s operational readiness, in case the execution of an international operation is necessary,” said Lt. Cmdr. Bonilla. “For the Ecuadorean Navy, it’s very important to continue with these exercises and set up different U.S.-sponsored operations to improve our safeguarding measures at sea,” said Rear Adm. Jarrín.