Palau and its neighbors have a strong set of rules, but that's only half the battle. There is still the issue of illegal and unregulated boats simply stealing fish; there is still the issue of who controls the high seas. The PNA has closed off nearby international waters to its licensees, but that doesn't stop others from illegally fishing there, and the PNA has no authority to stop them. Worse, even if the PNA had the authority, they don't have the resources. Palau, for example, polices a 250,000 square miles of its own territorial waters as well as the high-seas pockets it helped create. All with a patrol “fleet” of one.
One, single, solitary boat.
Which is why Palau had asked Greenpeace's Esperanza to help out: When the Esperanza arrived, it doubled Palau's enforcement capacity.
Once I extricate my shoe from the belly of the Heng Xing 1, Obaidullah explains that the boat’s captain freely admitted moving the tuna—apparently unaware that it’s illegal to do so. Plus, the Heng Xing 1 is flagged by Cambodia, a nation that isn't a member of the WCPFC, so it has no right to be here at all. But when the Greenpeace team finishes taking pictures and thanks the very welcoming crew, they simply return to the Esperanza.
Obaidullah explains that even though the Heng Xing 1 and its two companion vessels all broke the law, Palau, and therefore Greenpeace, didn’t have the authority to stop them. Palau can only bust boats it catches breaking laws inside its own waters. Since the laundering happened on the high seas, Palau had as much jurisdiction as a Los Angeles cop in Paris.
"Ships like this can get away with catching as much as they like," Obaidullah tells me. While it's impossible to know exactly where the Heng Xing 1 tuna was caught, pirate fishers often illegally catch fish inside the fertile territorial waters of island states and then escape into the high-seas no-man's-land to transfer it to refrigerated ships. If you're a pirate fishing captain trying to get your stolen catch to port undetected, this is how you do it. "They can move it onto other vessels, supply the market with tuna, but meanwhile nobody knows where it was caught, when it was caught, or if they obeyed the rules. It's impossible to manage fish stocks with vessels like this," she says. The activist cops could only document the incident and then try to get the Heng Xing 1 blacklisted so it would have trouble off-loading its catch in the future.
The incident, far from unusual, highlights just how far laws and enforcement on the seas have to go before the PNA’s tuna-protecting crusade can fully succeed.
Fortunately, the world is beginning to take steps, slowly, in the right direction. Interpol announced recently that it plans to tackle fish laundering, which would mean that a fleet with actual authority to enforce high-seas law would, for the first time, patrol international waters. How many boats, where they would patrol, and what it means are all being worked out.
Meanwhile, a new international effort, called the Global Ocean Commission, was announced in February to rein in pirate fishing and combat lawlessness on the high seas. "The current enforcement on the high seas is inadequate at best and worthless at worst," former U.K. foreign secretary David Miliband, who will co-chair the commission, told the Guardian. The cost to the world in lost marine resources is valued in the trillions, a staggering impact greater than the global financial crisis. "We're living as if we have three or four planets instead of one,"Miliband said.
These moves, among others, could signal real change. But they're fledgling, and details are unclear.
In the meantime, a case can still be made for giving the PNA a lot more boats.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.