Rai Balang 2015 takes a hit from Cyclone Pam: Fishing, patrol boats seek shelter as patrol flights divert to Vanuatu

WED 25th Mar, 2015: FFA HQ, Honiara, SOLOMON ISLANDS – Despite taking a hit from Cyclone Pam, the  annual Rai Balang regional maritime surveillance exercise continued regional  action against Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing activity in Pacific waters. The ten-day operation with a focus on the North Pacific saw its extensive planning and patrol schedule shattered by the rogue weather. Despite this, the operation ended on the weekend with two potential IUU investigations now underway in FSM. 

“We saw how the exercise adapted quickly to respond to the threat from Pam, and then to support the Vanuatu disaster,” says FFA Director General James Movick.

“At the same time it was heartening to see the effort from national partners who did what they could to rise above their challenges and support the Rai Balang 2015 Operation. Any surveillance exercise on fishing activity is going to be at the mercy of the elements, and Cyclone Pam showed us that reality, with powerful and tragic force. I give full credit to those involved in both Rai Balang, and the Vanuatu response effort,” Movick says.

As Rai Balang 2015 began on March 10 the weather conditions for Cyclone Pam and its evolution into a category 5 storm forced Pacific patrol boats like the Solomon Islands’ Auki to seek shelter. It later withdrew completely from the operation. By March 13, Australia’s support aircraft for Rai Balang, based out of Henderson field, was re-tasked to support Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Operations in support of Operation Pacific Assist over the Islands of Vanuatu. Another Aircraft from Australia arrived shortly after and both planes conducted daily flights to the disaster area operating out of Honiara.

Based out of FFA’s RFSC, Rai Balang 2015 Air Liaison Officer Chris Duffy spent the last week of the operation focused on aerial information gathering of the level of destruction left by Cyclone Pam across the archipelago. The resulting images and data were a vital information source, filling a void left by damaged communications infrastructure and cell towers across the country. The work of the re-tasked Rai-Balang patrols has given the Disaster management team in Port Vila a clearer picture of the damage, helping them to deal with supplying the big '4' – health, shelter, water and food, to tens of thousands of displaced.

 “Accommodating the re-tasked Air Liaison Support for Rai Balang to assist the efforts for Vanuatu is the least that FFA could do, and we stand by to assist as required and however we can through this recovery and rebuilding time for our neighbor,” says DG Movick.

Rai Balang 2015 featured 40 sightings, 49 boardings including 23 in port, and the two potential infringements picked up by the FSM Patrol Boat FSS ‘Independence’. 

More interactions between fishing, transshipment and bunker vessels have again added to the intelligence picture, but highlighted the need for the region to continue its ongoing monitoring work, supplemented by bursts of observation during surveillance operations.

DG Movick commended the ongoing commitment from all participating national headquarters for their resolve in safeguarding Pacific fisheries from IUU fishing; and the complementary support from the QUADS – the Defence sectors of Australia, France, New Zealand and the United States, whose participating air force and naval assets helped enrich the regional surveillance picture. 

In a new role introduced in 2014, Chief of staff for Rai Balang 2015 was Azania Fusimalohi of Tonga. Sub-Lieutenant Fusimalohi performed a central role keeping lines of communication active and clear between Pacific watchkeepers, FFA RSFC staff, and the QUADs. Rai Balang 2015 featured watch keeper support from the Marshall Islands, Solomon’s and Vanuatu.

DG Movick welcomed the continuation of the ‘Chief of Staff’ role stepping up capacity building for effective maritime surveillance. 

 “The role of Pacific watchkeepers and Chief of Staff leadership helps grow a generation of Maritime officials able to see – and eventually manage-- how all the different layers of maritime information and surveillance data come together,” says DG Movick. He says the capacity and confidence building role for Pacific nationals in leading maritime surveillance “is the vital, human component to ensuring we have the best possible resources in monitoring and surveillance work on the FFA ocean areas.”

The timing of all surveillance exercises is a closely guarded secret involving FFA’s Regional Fisheries Surveillance Centre, Maritime, Fisheries and Police officials in participating member countries, and the QUADs support. In addition, joining Rai Balang 2015 – Tony Garner of Australia’s Fisheries Management Authority gave added intelligence around potential transshipment and bunkering activity, and Greg Wong of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hawaii centre continued a broad level of support for FFA’s surveillance operations -- ENDS