REMINISCENCES | Dealing with rogue Japanese trawlers

REMINISCENCES | Dealing with rogue Japanese trawlers

Aerial shot of Midway Atoll (Photo: Digital Globe via US Fish and Wildlife Service)

This episode is a bit complicated because it involves five rogue Japanese coral draggers and two Japanese stern trawlers, all operating on Hancock Seamount several hundred miles from Midway Island and just inside the US Exclusive Economic Zone, sometimes called the 200-mile fishery zone. Five of them had previously escaped from the US Coast Guard’s surveillance on April 20, 1978. They were probably small tuna longliners modified for coral dragging. And before it was all over, one of the seven, the Japanese stern trawler Koshin Maru No 21, was seized by the coast guard on May 6, 1978, but it took five years for the five rogue coral draggers to pay a total of US$125,000 in fines and not until the US Embassy in Tokyo made a formal presentation to the Japanese Foreign Ministry demanding payment.

How it all began

In April 1978, two law enforcement special agents (SAs or “fish cops”) of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Honolulu, Bill Streeter and Scott Anderson, had been on coast guard flights along the Hawaiian archipelago looking for illegal foreign fishing vessels for six months. They did not find any and so, in frustration, they approached me to take their place on the next coast guard fisheries flight. I was a fishery biologist/administrator and worked in the same office as Streeter and Anderson as a mid-level fisheries bureaucrat. While I was not an NMFS Special Agent, I knew a lot about foreign fishing vessels.

I agreed to take their place and they gave me all the gear I would need on the flight, except a sidearm (i.e., pistol). The main thing they gave me was a high-speed camera that took three photos per second every time its trigger was depressed. If we spotted any foreign fishing vessels my instructions were to take pictures, take pictures, and take pictures.

The flight took off on April 20, 1978, and we flew up to Midway Island, 1,311 miles from Honolulu, where we stopped to refuel, had a cup of coffee, and resumed the flight towards the 200-mile fishery zone around Kure Island, which is about 165 miles northwest of Midway. To our surprise, we discovered not one but five Japanese coral draggers that were literally ripping the ocean floor on Hancock Seamount with drag nets for precious coral just inside the US 200-mile fishery zone. Our pilot signalled them by flashing lights with the International Code Signal LIMA LIMA LIMA and dropped a message telling them to “instantly” stop.

We made several low passes (altitude of between 250 and 300 feet) over the coral draggers and I got some excellent photographs of their dragging ropes coiled on deck. But the draggers did not stop and after hauling their dragging gear, they took off for Japan and got away Scott free. Each was fined US$25,000 but did not pay the fine until five years later in 1983, when I delivered a Diplomatic Note to the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. At the time, I was the Fisheries Attaché at the US Embassy in Tokyo.

When I arrived back in Honolulu, SAs Streeter and Anderson were happy I got the photos, but I think they were a bit irritated that a rookie found the coral draggers. Bill Streeter immediately started planning for the next surveillance flight to the Kure Island area and asked me to come as a fishery biologist/observer. I liked that.

We left Honolulu early on May 5, 1978, on Coast Guard aircraft CGNR-1349, a C-130 aircraft, and at 13:10 Hawaii standard time, we sighted two stern trawlers “dead in the water” on Hancock Seamount at a position approximately 165 miles from Kure Island, Hawaii. One was Koshin Maru No 21. One of the trawlers, Ryuyo Maru No 2, was a permitted vessel and allowed to fish in the in the 200-mile fisheries zone.

At this point, the coast guard had no further interest in Ryuyo Maru No 2. The other stern trawler was not a permitted vessel and the attention of Coast Guard flight CGNR-1349 was now focused on it. What happened next is described in the Litigation Report that summarises the actions of Coast Guard flight CGNR-1349 and Koshin Maru No 21.

The C-130 aircraft dropped messages in Japanese and English for the trawler to retrieve. After retrieving the message blocks, it stopped at approximately 13:30 Hawaii standard time. The following is from the Litigation Report:

“Upon the overflight of CGNR-1349, Koshin Maru No 21 immediately got underway, proceeding northwest at an estimated speed of 15 knots (top speed). CGNR-1349 maintained pursuit and flashed LIMA LIMA LIMA, which is an international code signal found in publication H.O. 102 NS 50 CFR Paragraph 611.6. It means ‘You should stop your vessel instantly’ with the aircraft’s landing lights and a hand-held light. The aircraft also dropped two smoke floats 100 yards off the vessel’s bow. The vessel stopped at approximately 13:35 Hawaiian standard time in position 29-54.9N, 179-01.1E. The aircraft then dropped message blocks (blocks of wood containing capsules which contained a message) which informed Koshin Maru No 21 that the vessel was in violation of the Fishery Conservation Zone (FCZ) and that it was to proceed to the vicinity of Midway Island. The vessel retrieved the message blocks and got underway to Midway at a speed of approximately 10 knots.

Koshin Maru No 21 then got underway for Midway and stopped outside its small harbor. Overnight, two additional coast guard personnel arrived on Midway from Honolulu.

The boarding party is formed

Together with SA Streeter and myself, we formed a boarding party to go on board Koshin Maru No 21 on May 6, 1978. The members of the boarding party were Lieutenant Bruce B. Stubbs, (coast guard officer-in-charge), Quartermaster Third Class Edward C. Knight (interpreter and note taker), SA Bill Streeter, and myself as observer/fishery biologist.

A fifth member of the boarding party who arrived on May 5 was a Mrs Slaughter who was on contract to the coast guard as an interpreter. The chronological log has her talking to the master of Koshin Maru No 21, but I do not remember seeing her at all.

During this boarding, the master and the crew offered various gifts of Japanese dolls, liquor, and food to the boarding party, but we refused these. Lieutenant Stubbs and SA Streeter then made a thorough check of the ship’s logs, housed fishing gear, and navigational charts as well as investigated spaces for processing fish.

Lieutenant Stubbs informed the master that his ship might have to go to Midway and that a pilot was available there. He acknowledged this. A part of a fish discovered by SA Streeter was a fleshy adipose fin, which is typical of salmon, so this fish part was probably acquired in Alaska.

After checking Koshin Maru No 21’s logs and inspecting the ship, SA Streeter made a last-minute check in the bottom drawer holding the ship’s navigational charts. On one chart, he found hand-made notations indicating the ship was planning to fish on Hancock Seamount. Under US fisheries law, “planning to fish” is equivalent to fishing.

The Coast Guard’s Situation Report says it was likely Koshin Maru No 21 was acting as a commercial scout for Ryuyo Maru No 2.

There was one other individual whose written Japanese was crucial to having message block instructions in Japanese and English and that I would ask Wil Van Campen, Executive Director of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, if he would prepare a message block in Japanese and English. SA Streeter thought that was a good idea.

I knew Wil Van Campen was the man to do this as he was a very skilled linguist, and could both read and write Japanese. I had known him from when we both worked for many years at the Honolulu Laboratory of the NMFS. Where he got the words in English to be translated into Japanese I don’t know, but probably from the coast guard.

I gave the message block instructions in Japanese and English to the pilot of our coast guard aircraft CGNR-1349, Lieutenant Commander Dennis Morrisey, and this was duly dropped on Koshin Maru No 21. I think Wil got the English version from the Coast Guard as I doubted the existing Coast Guard message blocks contained instructions in Japanese, for if they did, there would be no reason for him to draft another set of instructions in Japanese.

Seizure of Koshin Maru No 21

At 12:47, Hawaii standard time, May 6, 1978, the Commandant of the US Coast Guard advised “no objection” for the seizure of Koshin Maru No 21 for violation of 16 USC 1857. The boarding officer, Lieutenant Stubbs, was directed to seize the vessel.

The vessel was seized at 17:26 Hawaii standard time on May 6, 1978. Before and after the seizure Lieutenant Stubbs was very thorough to inform the Master of his rights such as the right to remain silent, being entitled to a lawyer, etc.

Before the seizure, the coast guard in Honolulu received several telephone calls from Mr Ron Bliss in Alaska on May 5 and May 6. 1978, Mr Bliss said he represented the owners of Koshin Maru No 21 and voiced his objections to any further questioning of Japanese individuals aboard the vessel and of the searching of the vessel without counsel being present.


The seizure of Koshin Maru No 21 depended on excellent work to detect the vessel by the crew of the C-130 aircraft, the investigation of the vessel’s logs of by Lieutenant Stubbs and SA Bill Streeter, the inspection of the vessel’s fishing gear, holds, navigational charts, and fisheries logs by SA Streeter, and the interpreting by Mrs Slaughter.

I went on board Koshin Maru No 21 only as an observer. I was specifically told that I had no authority regarding the boarding and seizure of the vessel. I had no problem with that.

My report of the five coral draggers and their subsequent fines of US$25,000 each is described in another chapter. Because these five coral draggers “escaped “ back to Japan, SA Streeter decided to mount another USCG/NMFS search for foreign fishing vessels in the Midway Island/Kure Island area, an activity described in this episode.

In late 1983, when I was the fisheries Attaché at the US Embassy in Tokyo, I had the distinct pleasure of handing a Diplomatic Note to two diplomats from the Foreign Ministry of Japan demanding the five coral draggers pay their fines of US$25,000 each. They did so soon after the Diplomatic note was delivered.

Koshin Maru No 21 did not have any fishing gear deployed but had been planning to fish as shown by a search of a navigational charts by SA Bill Streeter. Planning to fish is “fishing” under the Magnuson–Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act. Because the second stern trawler was a permitted vessel, it is likely Koshin Maru No 21 was acting as a commercial scout for this vessel and either made a mistake and blundered into the 200-mile fisheries zone or took a chance it could get away with scouting inside the zone.

The master of Koshin Maru No 21 made a comment that he plotted the boundary of the 200-mile fishery zone from Midway, which would have put his ship outside the 200-mile zone – an expensive error. He should have plotted it from Kure Island. It was an expensive mistake to make.

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

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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.