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U.S. Navy Fights To Save West Africa From Illegal Fisheries

Aboard the U.S.S. Nashville:  In his civilian clothes, Dr. Augustus Vogel stood out among the khaki, green and blue uniforms of Nashville's military crew. As the U.S. Navy's science liaison for the amphibious ship's six-month "smart power" mission delivering training, humanitarian and scientific assistance to six West African nations, Vogel's responsibilities were as unusual as his dress.

On April 17, Vogel sat down in the vessel's plush officer's lounge to confer with a small team of diplomats and naval officers. The topic of their hour-long discussion: fish -- and the catching thereof -- in the bustling, anarchic Gulf of Guinea.

It's still rare for one of the Navy's powerful warships to host an in-depth, jargon-laden scientific discussion about fish. But with the emergence of smart power, it's becoming somewhat less rare. "We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in a 2007 speech advocating this new approach to national security. The Pentagon would draw on civilian agencies, aid groups and academia to address the roots of conflict before they can blossom into full-scale international crises.

Science is a largely unheralded aspect of this largely unheralded new strategy. But not for long, if Vogel, a civilian employee of the Department of the Navy, has his way. During World Politics Review's five-day stint aboard Nashville off the coast of Gabon, Vogel explained how protection of fisheries is vital to the security of the region and, by extension, the whole world. "It benefits everybody," Vogel said.

Lt. Cmdr. Anjinho Mourinha of the Portuguese navy, a fisheries-protection expert working alongside Vogle, pointed to Somalia as an example of how tensions over fishing can escalate to violence, with global effects. The current piracy crisis off the Somali coast has its
roots in Somalia's post-civil-war era
in the early 1990s, when foreign fishing vessels took advantage of the chaos on land to illegally strip the impoverished East African country's stocks of shark and tuna. Somali fishermen fought back by boarding and hijacking these illegally operating boats. The practice was the germ of today's more sophisticated high-seas banditry, which threatens global trade at a time of widespread recession.

It's up to each nation to protect their own fisheries, for their own sake and for the sake of the world economy. After all, Mourinha said, fish don't respect political borders. Overfishing a particular species in, say, Gabonese waters, could doom the same fish worldwide, damaging the economies of many nations and leading to tensions and even armed conflict.

The problem is that in West Africa, fisheries protection is largely neglected, Vogel said. No one knows how many fish there are, who's exploiting the fisheries and how heavily they're doing so. "They understand they have challenges," Vogel said of the region's governments, but cited "a lack of budget, a lack of training."

At each of the five countries where Nashville has made port calls since January, Vogel has gone ashore to assess the local fishing economy and the government's enforcement capability. On April 18, in Sao Tome and Principe, a tiny island nation 200 miles off the Gabonese coast, Vogel eyed a fishing trawler offloading crates of the day's catch, then walked to a nearby coast guard station to inspect the U.S.-donated radar, used to spot vessels illegally infiltrating Sao Tome's national waters. The radar was working, but some of the displays the coast guardsmen use to read its data were malfunctioning. Nashville sent ashore three technicians to solve the problem. It turned out the displays were plugged into a power source with the wrong voltage.

This inability to look after sophisticated technology is endemic to the region, creating the need for a more grassroots approach to fisheries protection. In his April 17 meeting, Vogel explained his strategy for equipping modestly trained African observers to look after their nations' fisheries. In Ghana, Vogel worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to train locals to ride on commercial fishing ships to collect data on how many and what kind of fish are being caught.

With that data, Vogel said, Ghana would be able to calculate the health of its fisheries and enact laws to protect them from overfishing. These observers can also be used to scout for illegal fishing. But this can "create a barrier between the observer and the fishing vessel," Vogel warned. "It can take on the form of corruption," where the fishermen pay the observers to look the other way.

It helps to periodically send a U.S. vessel to work alongside fisheries observers, Vogel said. A team belonging to the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is scheduled to visit Cameroon this fall, for that purpose. While not officially part of the Pentagon's West African security initiatives, development of observer programs is still very much consistent with the military's efforts to prevent conflict in the region.