Free and Open Indo-Pacific/FOIPOceania

Long-standing shiprider agreements boost Free and Open Indo-Pacific, protect EEZs


The shiprider program, the successful multilateral fisheries surveillance and law enforcement effort in the Indo-Pacific, traces its origins to the late 1980s when the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency recommended member countries develop a reciprocal enforcement agreement.

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Harriet Lane partners with local police, fisheries agencies and other officials in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu in early 2024 to model good maritime governance, bolster capacity, and combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

What became known as the Niue Treaty on Cooperation in Fisheries Surveillance and Law Enforcement in the South Pacific Region took effect in 1993. The accord’s sixth article is the basis for the shiprider program, Richard Pruett, a former United States diplomat who served as deputy chief of mission to six Pacific island countries, wrote recently for Georgetown University’s Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies.

Under that article, a participating country, through a subsidiary agreement, can permit another party to extend its fisheries surveillance and law enforcement activities to the first country’s territorial sea and archipelagic waters.

The shiprider program is part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s Theater Security Cooperation initiative, which seeks to enhance regional stability and security.

The Cook Islands and the U.S. established the first shiprider effort in the Indo-Pacific in 2008. The U.S. Coast Guard now has bilateral fisheries law enforcement agreements with 12 Indo-Pacific nations. The pacts enable each nation’s military and/or maritime law enforcement officers to ride aboard the other’s vessels and enforce laws within their respective waters, including exclusive economic zones (EEZ). They are permitted to stop, inspect and detain vessels suspected of illicit maritime activity, particularly illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Shiprider agreements are particularly valuable for smaller island countries, which may lack the maritime personnel and assets to adequately protect their expansive EEZs.

Indo-Pacific participants also include Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Micronesia, Palau and Papua New Guinea also have extended their agreements to allow the U.S. Coast Guard to enforce their laws without having one of their respective law enforcement officers onboard.

“We’re working together as regional security partners. We’re boosting our shared vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in May 2023 when Papua New Guinea expanded its agreement.

The shiprider program gained renewed attention recently when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) falsely claimed that its flagged fishing vessels were exempt from enforcement actions in other countries’ EEZs. In fact, the shiprider agreements, which follow international law, allowed Vanuatu police and the U.S. Coast Guard to discover six Chinese fishing boats violating Vanuatu’s fisheries laws, Reuters reported in March.

“We do these boardings at the behest of those host nations who invite us to board, to work with them collaboratively in protecting their exclusive economic zones,” U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Michael Day told reporters. “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific is predicated upon the following of international rules and norms and laws, and I am happy to say the Coast Guard is complying with all international law and these are legal boardings.”

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Harriet Lane conducted patrols that resulted in 28 vessel boardings under shiprider agreements from January through March 2024, the Benar News agency reported.

The U.S. Coast Guard also announced in late February 2024 that personnel from the cutter Oliver Henry and the Kiribati Police Maritime Unit boarded two PRC-flagged fishing vessels and monitored fishing vessels from the PRC and other counties in Kiribati’s EEZ as part of Operation Blue Pacific. No violations were found.

The PRC’s distant-water fleet of 4,600 vessels is the world’s largest and reaches farther into the high seas each year, the U.S. Naval Institute reported. Chinese fishing vessels often encroach on other nations’ EEZs, experts say.

The PRC is increasingly concerned the shiprider program will extend to the Philippines or Vietnam, which are among the nations that reject the PRC’s arbitrary and expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, according to Pruett.

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