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Coast Guard cutter changes command in Honolulu en route to South China Sea

CGC Stratton (USCGC STRATTON WMSL 752/Facebook)

One of the U.S. Coast Guard’s largest cutters held a change-of-command ceremony in Honolulu Harbor on Monday during a stop on its way to conduct operations in the Western Pacific.

One of the U.S. Coast Guard’s largest cutters held a change-of-command ceremony in Honolulu Harbor on Monday during a stop on its way to conduct operations in the Western Pacific.

In a speech to the crew and dignitaries, Capt. Stephen Adler of the Legend-­class cutter CGC Stratton reflected on how his crew responded to tsunamis that struck the Pacific after the eruption of an underwater volcano off Tonga in 2021, pulled into port in Papua New Guinea during a monsoon and got to enjoy Fiji’s beaches as COVID-19 restrictions in the country lifted.

“Over my tenure, we’ve traveled from the far reaches of the South Pacific to the remote portions of the Arctic, ” said Adler. “And now the ship is ready and prepared to sail into some of the most contested waters in the world : the South China Sea.”

Adler, who has commanded the Stratton since May 2021, handed over the reins of the large vessel to Capt. Brian Krautler to take on a new role as the Coast Guard’s chief trial judge. Stratton’s westward voyage comes amid growing concerns about illegal fishing and heightened geopolitical tension in the Pacific region.

In 2020 the Coast Guard said illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing—or IUU—had surpassed piracy as the world’s greatest maritime security threat. The service warned that rampant overfishing is causing environmental and economic devastation to coastal communities that depend on fishing for food and employment.

“(Fisheries are ) probably the biggest resource right now on the planet that isn’t being managed as well as it could be, ” said Adler.

The officer said the Coast Guard’s Legend-­class cutters are ideal for taking on that challenge. The 418-foot-long vessels operated by a crew of up to 150 Coast Guardsmen have a helipad and are equipped with an onboard Scan ­Eagle drone that allows them to conduct surveillance over wide expanse of the ocean.

“We bring everything to that fight. We are the largest, most capable cutter, ” said Adler, adding that it is “able to fuse information and intelligence at a higher level, to bring that all together to find the different types of targets that you’re looking for that may be illegally fishing or, you know, not reporting what they are fishing.”

The Coast Guard has played an increasingly important role in America’s Pacific strategy as the U.S. competes with China for influence. Unlike the Navy, the Coast Guard has law enforcement authorities that in some cases allows it to board and inspect vessels suspected of illegal activity on the high seas, including illegal fishing.

It also can operate in foreign countries through ship rider agreements, which bring local officials onto the U.S. Coast Guard cutters to direct inspections and other operations. Many Pacific island nations lack navies or coast guards of their own to defend their waters and conduct search-and-rescue missions, and look to countries like the U.S. to help.

“We are recognized internationally for excellence in law enforcement, fisheries, search and rescue, real spill response environment, ” said Krautler. “Our international partners see that, and they want help in partnering with us to do those missions.”

In Honolulu Harbor, Rear Adm. Matthew Sibley, deputy commander of U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area, said, “We are changing leadership onboard Stratton, but the men and women in this command will continue to save lives, protect the environment, enforce our laws and defend our nation.” He told the crew, “You did all of this in the shadow of increased strategic competition in the region.”

While the Coast Guard’s movements westward are welcomed by many countries, others—particularly China—have watched with suspicion.

The South China Sea is a critical waterway through which more than a third of all international trade travels. It’s also a hotly disputed territory, with China embroiled in maritime territorial and navigation rights with neighboring countries. Beijing considers almost the entire region its exclusive sovereign territory despite a 2016 international court ruling in favor of the Philippines that rejected almost all of China’s territorial claims.

Disputes over fishing have featured prominently in these spats. Once one of the world’s plentiful fishing grounds, industrial fishing has ravaged the South China Sea’s fisheries. China’s fishing fleet, which is the world’s largest and the recipient of generous government subsidies, has been criticized for its aggressive behavior in the region, with allegations that it regularly attacks and harasses fishermen from other countries.

Chinese industrial fishing vessels are often larger than those from neighboring countries. The Chinese navy and coast guard also have been accused of moving into other countries’ maritime territory and pushing out fishermen. Philippine food security advocacy group Tugon Kabu ­hayan estimated in 2021 that fishermen in the Philippines had lost out on at least 7.9 million pounds of fish from Chinese ships staking out their traditional fishing grounds.

But these disputes are about more than the fish.

The Chinese government has been accused of using ostensibly civilian vessels like fishing boats and research vessels in support of its navy. Several countries have accused these so-called “maritime militias ” of staking out disputed territories—including ones with possible undersea oil deposits—harassing mariners and conducting surveillance missions in coordination with military vessels. The Chinese military also has built bases on disputed islands and reefs to assert its claims.

While many governments in the Pacific are eager to work with the U.S. to send a message to China, some are wary of America’s increased interest in their region.

The National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organizations in the Philippines said in a February Twitter post in response to an expanded basing agreement signed between Washington and Manila that “our territorial waters in the West Philippine Sea are already militarized by China ; the last thing that Fili ­pino fishers want is an expansion of U.S. military bases at the further expense of our sovereign rights and territorial integrity.”

The Stratton, which is home-ported in Alameda, Calif., is one the Coast Guard’s nine Legend-class cutters. Two of them, CGC Kimball and CGC Midgett, are ported in Honolulu. Kimball is currently dry-docked at Pacific Shipyards International in Honolulu Harbor for its first maintenance period since it first arrived in Hawaii in 2018.


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