Aug 14, 2020 Last Updated 10:45 PM, Aug 12, 2020

Solomon Island, Fijian and Papua New Guinean fisheries observers are now home after being repatriated from American Samoa this week.

Some of them had been away from home since December last year.

The nine Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) Observers disembarked from United States fishing boats in Pago Pago over the past several weeks. They are now being quarantined in their home countries.

The FFA says the repatriation exercise was financed by the American Tunaboat Association (ATA) member vessel owners.

A tenth PNG observer disembarked in Honolulu and transited through California and Brisbane, before arriving in Port Moresby this week.

In March, the FFA temporarily suspended the requirement for 100% observer coverage on all Purse Seine Vessels in the WCPO. The temporary suspension also calls for vessel operators to repatriate observers that were on their vessels.

Director-General Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen said "FFA is sincerely grateful to the ATA Executive Director and its members for the hard work with the relevant national observer programmes and the FFA Secretariat to ensure the safe return of our observers." 

"The extraordinary situation we're all faced with calls for closer cooperation, and this is a great example of this," she added. 

ATA Executive Director, William Gibbons-Fly said while repatriating the observers had been a considerable challenge, they received very strong support from American Samoan government and officials.

Other observers have already returned home, including a Marshall Islands observer who was finally dropped off in Majuro after going all the way to Mexico and back – a journey lasting several weeks. 

"Fishing doesn't stop, so neither will our surveillance," said Commander Robert Lewis, at the Forum Fisheries Agency’s Regional Fisheries Surveillance Centre (RFSC) in Honiara as Operation Rai Balang 2020 comes to a close.

The two-week fisheries surveillance activity ends tomorrow. It covered 14.1million square kilometres and included 108 sighting and 24 boardings during the heightened global response to coronavirus. 

"Fisheries surveillance in the Pacific is imperative to ensure compliance by the fishing fleets, and deter any illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities.  Fisheries have a direct benefit for Pacific island counties economies, and that makes surveillance even more important in these unprecedented times," Commander Lewis said.

“Twenty-four boardings is a real impact considering the current COVID-19 situation; obviously each crew considered national guidelines to ensure their safety and avoid any potential coronavirus transmission," said CMDR Lewis. 

The participants of Op Rai Balang were eight FFA member states: Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.  This was supported by Quadrilateral defence partners: Australia, France, New Zealand and the United States, and the Pacific Maritime Surveillance Programme aircraft.  Due to developing global travel restrictions and recalls of national surveillance assets, not all surveillance assets were utilised as planned.

FFA Director General, Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen underlined the regional coordination demonstrated during Op Rai Balang.  "At the outset, we sincerely thank all of those who participated to ensure the success of this operation during these challenging times.  In the Pacific, we know that together we are stronger.  The extraordinary circumstances for Op Rai Balang presented a unique way to demonstrate our collective commitment to protecting our valuable fisheries resources and confirming that any challenge can be overcome through Cooperation.  The FFA is proud to continue to assist our member States in this way."

Op Rai Balang is one of four targeted operations hosted by the FFA annually, however regional surveillance is supported 365 days a year through the RFSC Regional Surveillance Picture. 

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