REMINISCENCES | United States of America – 1, Japan – 0

One of two illegal Japanese precious coral draggers is shown inside the US 200-mile Fisheries Zone near Kure Island, Hawaii. The boats escaped apprehension by the US Coast Guard in 1978 but in 1983 they each paid a $25,000 fine. (Photo: Bob Iversen)

This episode started On April 20, 1978 during a US Coast Guard fishery patrol near Midway Islands and did not end until mid-1983 during a confrontation I had with two Japanese diplomats at the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. I still find it difficult to believe all this actually happened.

In April 1978, I was still a mid-level bureaucrat and fishery administrator with the Pacific Islands Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Honolulu. We had a small office – with John Naughton as environmentalist, Marge Siu as secretary, me as administrator, and most importantly two Fishery Law Enforcement Special Agents.  They were Bill Streeter and Scott Anderson, in other words “fish cops”. Bill and Scott were often out of the office flying on US Coast Guard C-130 aircraft on fishery patrols covering some of the 1,000,000 square nautical miles of the US Exclusive Economic Zone around Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and other US Pacific island possessions.

In 1978, there was very little foreign fishing activity that was observed from the USCG’s C-130 patrols or USCG surface vessel patrols. After about six months with nothing to show for their efforts, Bill and Scott approached me one day with the idea that I might like to take their places in the next C-130 patrol. This patrol was scheduled to fly along the North-western Hawaiian Islands – covering Midway Islands, Kure Atoll and Hancock Seamount, about 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu. Flying on USCG fishery patrols was not part of my job description, but I had also become bored with pushing papers, so I decided to accept Bill and Scott’s idea that I ride the C-130 to the end of the Hawaiian archipelago, Kure Island and return. They assured I me was not going to see any foreign fishing vessels. Were they ever wrong!

They outfitted me with a Special Agent’s briefcase containing various photographs and sketches and paperwork covering foreign fishing vessels – plus a pair of high-power binoculars and a special high-speed camera with black and white 35 mm. film. The main feature of this camera was that it took three photos every second when the trigger was depressed. Streeter and Anderson said that if we did sight any foreign fishing vessels the main thing was to take photographs, take photographs, take photographs!

I drove out to the Barber’s Point Naval Air Station, home of the USCG’s squadron of C-130 aircraft. I met the pilot (a Lieutenant Commander), the co-pilot (a Lieutenant), the Navigator (a Lieutenant) and the Chief Engineer (a First-Class Petty Officer). The pilot told the Engineer to show me where I would sit after the aircraft had taken off.  He waved generally to a place behind the pilot, but there was nothing there to sit on – which I discreetly pointed out to him. He said not to worry as my seat was on the way and sure enough what I would describe as a “bar stool” appeared from down below and was placed just about 18 inches behind the pilot and tied down. If something happened I would simply take pictures out the small window directly on my left. For take-offs and landings I sat in a regular passenger seat with seat belt, shoulder harness, etc.

After we took off I took my seat on the bar stool behind the pilot and got my camera ready to take photographs.  In the meantime, the aircraft climbed to a low patrolling altitude where the crew had about 270 degrees of visibility in front and to the sides of the C-130.  The aircraft’s long-range radar would tell the crew to be on the alert for surface vessels that were inside the 200-mile fishing zone.  We flew along the North-western Hawaiian Islands from Nihoa Atoll to Midway Island without seeing any foreign fishing vessels.  After refuelling at Midway and a cup of coffee we took off again for Kure Island (about 100 miles from Midway) and Hancock Seamount, which was just inside the U.S. 200-mile zone and where there previously had been reports of poaching by foreign fishing vessels.

“The rules of engagement require the Coast Guard tracking aircraft or surface vessel to keep the offending vessel in sight at all times.”

The pilot decided to fly low over the Hancock Seamount and I was given a special floatation vest that was mandatory to wear when flying below 2,400 feet. After about 10 minutes the call went out: “Surface vessels in sight.” My binoculars showed me there were about five or six Japanese tuna longline vessels fishing in a small area just inside Hancock Seamount Southeast. But there was something wrong about my thinking they were a concentration of tuna longliners as tuna longliners always fished by themselves, many dozens of miles from the nearest longliner.

The pilot banked the aircraft so its left side (where I was) would have a good view of the poachers. As we made our first pass over the poachers we were flying just above the masts of the fishing boats, perhaps at only 250 or 300 feet. On each pass by the C-130 I took as many photos as I could when each vessel was in focus. After a few passes it became clear to me what these poachers were.

They were coral dragging vessels probably converted from medium sized tuna longliners.  I could clearly see the coiled dragging lines piled along the deck on the port side, line haulers in the middle of the deck and some white box-like devices on the starboard rail. The dragging lines were then passed over the ship’s port side to the ocean bottom where rocks were used as weights and big pieces of old salmon gill nets were used as entangling gear that would drag along the top of the seamount entangling the coral.

Their target was precious red coral to be made into jewellery for women and for other decorations. Precious red coral is very expensive, with some finished items often worth hundreds to thousands of dollars per ounce. Intelligence reports indicated that Japanese coral draggers had pretty much denuded Hancock Seamount of precious coral. Nevertheless, these draggers decided they would try again, but this time they made navigational errors and were dragging about two or three miles inside the 200-mile zone when we detected them, plotted their positions and photographed their activities.

What happened next? It was our intention to somehow get the five poachers to heave to and await a further Coast Guard presence. This would have been possible but difficult, because the nearest Coast Guard cutter was in Honolulu, a trip of about four days to the seamount and the aircraft did not have enough fuel to maintain station above the poachers.

But the five coral draggers had no intention of heaving to. They just retrieved their dragging gear and headed west towards Japan on a course of about 270 degrees. This caused a problem for the Coast Guard. The rules of engagement require the Coast Guard tracking aircraft or surface vessel to keep the offending vessel in sight at all times. “Sight” is defined as being visually in sight or in sight by radar. If sight is lost, the chase is nullified and is usually is aborted.

This is what happened aboard our C-130. The pilot conferred with his superiors in Honolulu and a decision was made to abort the chase. So, we went back to Midway Island, refuelled and flew back to Honolulu. While flying back I filled out my observer’s log and on one or two small maps of the poaching area I made notations showing the date, time, and other details.

After arriving back in Honolulu my part in this episode ended after I wrote up a trip report and turned the photographs over to Streeter and Anderson for developing. After they read my report and found that the photographs had turned out very well, they were rather pissed off they had not been on the C-130, and that a rookie fishery observer like me had been on board the aircraft.  Later I found out that notices had been sent by the US Department of State to the owners of these vessels stating each had been fined US$25,000, but the owners ignored the State Department notices of fines.

“It was obvious the Foreign Ministry did not like being asked to obtain the US$25,000 fines levied on each coral dragger.”

Two years later, in 1980, I was selected to fill the position of Fishery Attaché at the US Embassy in Tokyo. I reported to the State Department in Washington, DC, and received instructions from them concerning my relations with the Japanese Foreign Ministry. One of the reasons I got the job was because over the years I had accumulated a great deal of experience on US flag fishing vessels and visits to Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese fishing vessels. It was a great job and I found it extremely interesting, both keeping track of Japan’s fisheries activities and delivering formal diplomatic notes to the Foreign Ministry. I even learned to speak some practical Japanese.

For the next several years my activities could be described as routine with only a few serious problems, none of them involving the coral draggers at Hancock Seamount. But by mid-1983 the State Department had lost its patience in trying to get the US$25,000 fines from each of the coral draggers and sent me a formal diplomatic note to be delivered to the Japanese Foreign Ministry. It demanded the coral draggers pay these fines. I took the note, made sure it was in the correct diplomatic language, cleared how I proposed to handle its delivery with my boss, the Economic Counsellor, and received permission to proceed.

I made an appointment to meet with two Japanese diplomats attached to the Second North American Division of the Ministry, which handled fishery relations with the US. Because I knew something personally about the five coral poachers we discovered five years earlier, I decided to take with me the Fishing Vessel Identification Guide published by the USCG/NMFS, which had the photographs I took of the coral draggers and a copy of a small map with my notations showing where the illegal coral draggers had been operating. I thought they might come in handy.

The meeting took place in a small conference room in the Second North American Division and after a bit of small talk and a cup of tea, I handed the diplomatic note over to the Japanese diplomats. It was two or three pages long, so it took a while for the Japanese officers to go through its contents. Then the back and forth discussion began. It was obvious the Foreign Ministry did not like being asked to obtain the US$25,000 fines levied on each coral dragger.

They also wanted to know more about the actual incident even though the diplomatic note cited what had happened. I was quizzed for more details on the incident. So, I reached into my coat pocket and took out the small map upon which I had noted the place, date, etc. of the illegal fishing and showed it to the Japanese diplomats. This did not make much of an impression on them.

So, I decided to take out the USCG/NMFS Fishing Vessel Identification Guide with my photographs of the coral draggers. I showed the photographs of the coral draggers to them, but this also did not make much of an impression.

Their next move was to challenge the veracity of the photographs. They admitted the photographs could be pictures of coral draggers, but how do we know they are the vessels described in the note. My answer was very short and simple: “I took them”. There were no more questions. This ended the discussion and the two Japanese diplomats thanked me for visiting with them and delivering the note, thus ending the meeting. I could tell they were rather irritated.

I learned later that each of the illegal coral draggers paid the US$25,000 fines.

The above article is an excerpt from Swimming with Fishes, Mr Iversen’s memoir detailing his experiences as a fishery biologist. It is reposted here on Baird Maritime with the author’s permission.

Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing, or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world? Send your submissions to: [email protected].

Bob Iversen

Bob Iversen is a retired Hawaii fishery biologist who spent 40 years studying tuna and other fish in the tropical Pacific Ocean. He is a former officer in the US Navy, and initiated the “mental health of seafarers” movement that has now taken off worldwide.