A Samoa law enforcement operation coordinated by Fisheries officials have pulled off one of the largest successful raids of illegally harvested fish products in the history of the country.
It netted dried sea cucumber of the highest grade with an estimated market value as high as US$360,000 or just under $1million (T$920,000).
A Chinese man caught in the raid has been charged with breaching Samoa’s Fisheries Act 1988. Codenamed ‘Rico’, the one week long operation, captured 431kilograms of the prime sea cucumber species, Sandfish (Holothuria scabra) at two locations in the capital city of Apia.
The Sandfish species can fetch up US$840 or SAT$2,140 per kilogram on the international market according to a 2014 study by Steven W. Purcell. Although a conservative estimate of ‘Operation Rico’s’ catch is currently penciled in at US$70,000 (SAT$180,000) Samoa’s Chief Fisheries Officer – MCS and Enforcement, Yohni Fepulea’i told Pacific Guardians, the dollar value of what could have been lost to Samoa’s coastal marine ecosystem and citizens is significant when taking into account the minimum wage is SAT$2.30 or US$0.90 per hour; and a 2014 GDP of US$800.4million according to the World Bank.
“Operation Rico involved extensive planning and the successful outcome relied heavily on the cooperation and collaboration between our Fisheries Enforcement Unit and our counterparts at the Police Maritime unit,” Mr. Fepulea’i revealed while representing Samoa at the annual FFA Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (M.C.S) Working Group meeting in Auckland.
“Without a doubt this is the highlight in the 2016 year already for our Enforcement unit, bringing these people who are illegally processing and exporting our valuable resources overseas. Resources that our government and people depend on.”
According to Mr. Fepulea’i, Fisheries and Maritime Police officers executed raids on two separate locations on 2 February 2016.
“The defendant was found operating a fish processing plant for sea cucumber fishery. The Investigation sighted processed Sea Cucumber in both locations and were immediately confiscated by the ‘Investigation Team’ and taken to the Fisheries Division laboratory for further analysis by our fisheries Species Expert referencing the Marine Invertebrates sea cucumber guides,” Mr. Fepulea’i explained. The 431kg haul was a mixture of echinoderms with the dominant species (80%) the prized Sandfish species.
The offender has been charged for violating the Fisheries Act 1988 – Part IV, Section 10 (C), while investigation is pending on link and evidence that he also violated Section 10 (B).
Mr. Fepulea’i also confirmed that investigations into other suspects involved in illegal operations are ongoing. The other successful outcome of ‘Operation Rico’ is the increasing and important role Fisheries Officials are now playing as part of Samoa’s wider law enforcement sector.
“It’s a fact that not many people know about our role as such, but for us it’s a very crucial role to raise awareness of the police sector overall that hopefully will deter criminals or have more sources come forward with information that would lead to more investigations.
“For our part, we want to promote the message that a Fisheries Act exists. That we are implementing the monitoring, control and enforcement of the Act’s provisions so that fishers and operators at the national level would opt for voluntary compliance under the Act rather than be tempted to go the other way.”
Although many of Samoa’s public are not aware of fisheries policing and enforcement role, the unit is growing to become a critical part of the enforcement sector as regional and international fishing networks forge closer links to reduce illegal fishing around the world.
In that combined network, they are also bringing in information that helps with investigations into other issues such as the illegal trade in drugs and human trafficking.
“Our fisheries unit may be small and under resourced, as is the case with many small developing nations, compared to the bigger nations in our region and internationally, but we have grown in capability and expertise compared to our efforts and coverage in the past in terms of our obligations at the national level. And the success of ‘Operation ‘Rico’ is testament we have improved and it has not come about by accident.
“We have taken on board the lessons learnt and innovations by our more experienced members in the Pacific and global regions, assistance from the Forum Fisheries Agency (F.F.A), and efforts by New Zealand and Australia in terms of assisting small island states like Samoa plug gaps and develop key skills needed in monitoring, control and surveillance of our national waters.”
At the end of the day, Samoa does not have the human and financial resources to fully manage its coastal and offshore fishery as well as play its part in regional efforts against Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (I.U.U) fishing.
But what it can do to buffer the shortfall is develop and maximise interagency cooperation and information sharing at the national and regional level according to Mr. Fepulea’i.
“It all starts from a base of national interagency coordination. A group that involves not only fisheries officials but also our other law enforcement agencies including inward clearing ministries which we can expand by linking up to regional agencies and Pacific island members working together at the horizontal level.
“Expanding that network regionally, allows us to cast our enforcement net, made up of well collaborated national agencies who are then linked to their respective agencies between member states that will have a better chance to monitor illegal activities in the high seas.”
The message to people involved in illegal fishing activities or thinking about getting into illegal activities in Samoa, “We are watching. With our enforcement counterparts we are growing our net to enforce the fisheries act. Let’s work together, you do voluntary compliance, and we make sure the level playing field stipulated by the Fisheries Act gives everyone fair game.”