Ads by Google Ads by Google

'Indo-Pacific Support Cutter' focuses on Oceania

U.S. Coast Guard and Fiji Navy personnel stand in front of USCG cutter

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Honolulu Advertiser reporter Kevin Knodell was aboard the USCG Cutter Harriet Lane when it began its new role as the “Indo- Pacific Support Cutter” devoted to operations in Oceania.  Here are some excerpts from his report on the voyage:

It was a hot, humid and cloudy day in the South Pacific as the U.S. Coast Guard's Cutter Harriet Lane pulled into port in Apia, Samoa, earlier this month.

The nearly 40-year-old ship arrived in Hawaii in December after undergoing over a year's worth of renovations at a Baltimore shipyard. In January it set sail for its first Pacific deployment, heading south into the high seas where members of its crew boarded fishing vessels to look for signs of illegal fishing.

It had made a quick stop in American Samoa before heading west into Samoan waters, where Lane's crew picked up and worked with Samoan law enforcement officials aboard as ‘ship riders’ for several days, allowing the Samoans to use Lane's resources and its crew to board fishing vessels within their own jurisdiction through an agreement with the U.S. government.

But as the ship moored at the pier, powerful swells and surf in the harbor raised alarm bells for officers and crew aboard. A storm system was passing through and it could be felt in the seas. The ropes tying the ship to the pier let out audible sounds of strain as the water churned.

Nearby in the port a capsized Chinese fishing vessel offered a vivid visual of what could happen to those who gamble on the ocean's power.

Cmdr. Nicole Tesoniero, Lane's captain, ultimately decided the risk was too high to stay in the port.

The ship riders got off and the Lane's cooks and other crews hastily brought on food supplies from the pier to restock the kitchen. Then Tesoniero met with officials with the U.S embassy and explained the potential danger—while making new plans on the fly. Lane left as the strain on the ropes reached its peak.

The ship returned to the sea, but stayed nearby. The next day, a handful of crew members left the Lane aboard an "over the horizon " boat—a small inflatable boat the ship uses for interdictions and boardings—to return to Apia for a day of classroom exercises with Samoan law enforcement. That night, Lane set sail bound for Suva, Fiji, for a port call there to wait out the stormy weather before picking up Fijian ship riders and resuming operations.

Tesoniero said that it's all part of a process of trial and error as the Lane and its crew undertake a mission they never have before. The Lane and the rest of the Coast Guard's 270s have a long history in the Caribbean and Latin America doing Drug War missions for which they were designed, along with search-and-rescue operations. There's a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw on whenever a challenge comes along.

But Tesoniero said that in the Pacific "we're now at the point of everything we do, we're the first 270 to ever do it. It's the first 270 to ever cross the international dateline at 40-years-old."

As the Lane traverses the Pacific, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan is also making a series of visits to Pacific Island countries, meeting top officials. The Coast Guard is playing an increasingly key role in America's Pacific strategy as the U.S. competes with China for influence.

Tesoniero runs the ship with both a sense of authority and a sense of humor, walking a fine line between being both a commander and shipmate as she leads a relatively small crew

It’s her job to lead Lane and its crew on a mission that top officials in Washington hope will breathe new life into America's Pacific engagement strategy. The Coast Guard has been working to increase its Pacific operations, with a major focus on outreach to Pacific Island nations as well as efforts to clamp down on illegal fishing.

Overfishing has become a hot topic, particularly in Oceania, where fishing vessels from around the world descend on the Pacific's "Tuna Belt " as fish stocks elsewhere see unprecedented depletion.

Some of the companies operating these vessels have been accused of flouting environmental regulations and underreporting their catches. By some estimates, as many as one in five fish sold in supermarkets may have been caught illegally. In 2020 the Coast Guard declared illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing—which maritime agencies call IUU—had surpassed high-seas piracy as the top global maritime security threat.

Along with the environmental effects, overfishing has had economic and social consequences — at times sparking tension as fishermen from different countries compete for fish stocks. Around the world, fishermen struggling to bring in enough fish have at times turned to piracy, drug smuggling and other criminal enterprises as coastal areas suffer from the fallout.

As China makes inroads in the Pacific, U.S. officials have been trying to hastily reinvest in the region. Officials said they hope to see the Lane host a range of experts on board as it travels the region, to include civilians from other agencies to meet requests from Pacific island countries.

"I think that's where we have the advantages, you know, a willingness to dialogue and gain perspective on what the ask is, and then try and bring that to the table the best we can, " said Tesoniero. "From an organizational standpoint, we need to just throw everything we have into saying Harriet Lane is unique to this region, she's going to fill out this mission, (and ) we're going to equip it with the right people and the resources to make that happen."

"We have to find what our niche down here is, and I do think it's being able to work with these small countries that American society as a whole may be a little bit more ignorant towards, and just share that, 'look, it's not just a big blue space on the map', " Tesoniero said.

Read full report in the Honolulu Advertiser