The Vietnamese “blue boats” sneaking into the central and South Pacific / by Francisco Blaha

Lots of info in the news on the so-called “Blue Boats” invasion, since they have been found in have been found in Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and as far south as Australia and New Caledonia. And is true, most come from Vietnam… but then that is part of the problem.

long way from home

long way from home

Most of the boats apprehended have Vietnamese citizens on board and many come from Vietnamese ports but Vu Duyen Hai the head of Vietnamese delegation to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission which met in Nadi recently, denies Vietnam is responsible.

“Some other countries have informed us that Vietnamese boats also come to other countries like Palau or Micronesia to poach but Vietnam is not so sure that these are Vietnamese vessels.”

He accepted that some fishing vessels stray outside Vietnam’s 200-miles Exclusive Economic Zone but he said this is because they “follow the fish” and most do not have equipment to tell them if they mistakenly enter other countries’ EEZ.

He said the Vietnamese government has tried to advise them not to go to other countries’ EEZ to poach because that would be illegal fishing, and that Vietnamese fisheries authorities also check local fishing vessels but “sometimes, fishing vessels go out, switch off their communication equipment and authorities could not locate them and this becomes a problem and now they are also against this and it has very heavy penalties including removal of licenses for ever”

And that is perhaps the most telling issue, obviously if these guys head off from Vietnam into a REALLY long trip for a long time, is not because hey are interested in keeping their local fishing license impeccable! 

They make it all the way into these countries knowing that coming back may not be an option, but still good business.

FSM authorities assessed that the price for one of the small boats which can handle 10 to 13 crew members is about 300 million Vietnamese Dong, approximately $12,000. The small boats carry 25,000 liters of fuel when they leave port in Vietnam. They return to port when the fuel gets down to 10 or 15 thousand liters of fuel.

The big blue boats which can carry 16 to 17 crew members cost around 600,000,000 Dong, approximately $24,000. The bigger boats carry approximately 35,000 liters of fuel and return to port when the fuel has reached 15,000 liters.

The price for diesel fuel in Vietnam has only changed negligibly in the last few months. On September 5, the price per liter was 50 cents USD. At that price, it costs about $12,500 to fuel an extended journey on one of the bigger boats. The journeys are intended to last two to three months and they bring enough food for that period of time.    

The other option, and one does not have to be a fisheries mastermind, is to asume that there must be a logistic arrangement behind them, with carriers to pick up catch and provide fuel, otherwise they will run out of fuel ( and storage space even if they dry all the fish on board. So they must have a fleet of carriers accompanying the foray, ergo radio and GPS on board are required. 

In any case, the vessels are very basic so their cost is not a disincentive in the case of being detained, add to that the massive overcapacity and subsidies that the Vietnamese government provides its fleet, and the present scenario is not surprising.

The previous and ongoing Vietnamese fisheries subsidies policies on fuel and vessels renewal, upgrading, infrastructure etc, offsets any damages from loosing the boat if they are captured. Moreover, in relation to fisheries management, open access to fisheries is the main problem, and is in fact a lack of management leading to overfishing and over-capacity. Overexploited resources and over-capacity, in turn, lead to boats ready to head off into far and more productive shores, even if it is illegal

Official figures put the Vietnamese offshore fleet at approximately 20000 vessels, almost all of them made of wood. Most vessels are equipped with second-hand truck engines. Among these, 6675 vessels are fitted with engines of 90 hp or above, but who really know what the reality is.

The boats cost almost nothing to buy or to operate, and "allegedly", they aren’t registered anywhere. If countries catch them it’s up to those countries to figure out what to do with them. Countries violated by the boats have confiscated them. They’ve burned them. They’ve even blown them up in spectacular fashion. Sinking, burning, or blowing up a blue boat may be spectacular images for the media and the rest of the world but it does little to keep the blue boats from scavenging the world’s oceans. The Vietnamese scavengers keep coming back because losing a boat is simply not enough of a deterrent to keep them away. 

In any case, they are allegedly two agencies involving in MCS in Vietnam’s sea area: fisheries inspection and Vietnam marine police. Vietnam Marine Police is the coast guard of Vietnam, so It provides protection and assistance to local fishermen when necessary (hence is not really MCS!) and the Fisheries inspection falls under the management of Directorate of Fisheries. It currently has 92 patrol boats, with only 8 boats with engines between 500 to 600 HP, wich could allow then to be checking of vessels leaving the EEZ… not a good ratio.

Besides all these, there are a real "pain" at many levels, they are a huge drain on local finances when they are caught and a huge drain on the local's livelihoods when they are not.

Fisheries wise, they forage the reefs effectively poaching within the 12-mile zones, taking the fish that the coastal populations use, without any form of control or management, affecting directly the livelihood of pacific islanders in remote atolls, the cargo holds inspections show beche de mer (sea cucumber) and reef fish as main catch.

Operationally, they are very hard to catch, don’t have VMS transponders, are primarily wooden so they don’t show very well on radar in that they are small and so FFA (whose mandate is almost entirely focused on oceanic tunas) are trying to trial the use of a number of different forms of satellite surveillance technology which is very expensive but we nevertheless think that in order to assist their member countries have a handle on this issue. And most island countries don’t have airplanes or the budgets for the planes to go out and look and the planes can only go out so far.

Diplomatically, once you catch and arrest the boat the problem continues (or as an affected friend told me, is where the real problem just starts!). The vessels have to be secured somewhere (good wharf space is a scares commodity in the Pacific), or stay anchored with all the responsibilities that that entitles. Furthermore, no papers to be found, no vessels ID, etc, etc.

In the meantime, what the crew does not speak English or so they say, Vietnam has no diplomatic representation in any Pacific Island states (only NZ and Australia), and the crew cannot just be abandon on board, they have no visas, no tickets or money to go back home (plus no direct flights) so they will have to go via the US and or Australia (that are notoriously strict with visas), so crew and vessels languish barely surviving until someone somewhere does something (normally at the cost of the arresting country). In many case the boast (mysteriously) sink inside an operational port, witch becomes even a worst nightmare since they block part of the port or become a pollution incident (or both)

Some countries can take swift action and either sink them during hot pursuit (PNG) or burn them for discouragement purposes (Palau)… but the effectiveness’ of theses measures seem limited…because the keep coming.

Solutions? Unfortunately none easy. Ultimate is flag state responsibility so Vietnam is responsible, and in a logic world, trade sections should be applied… Vietnam is a huge exporter of fisheries and aquaculture products, they should be a tariff structure tied up to flag state performance and compliance. So if you don’t control your fleet, then you products will be subjected to higher tariffs until you get it sorted. Add to that a EU yellow card and perhaps they will start listening and assuming their responsibilities.