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Coast Guard ‘Indo-Pacific Support Cutter’ returns to Honolulu

CGC Harriet Lane (U.S. Coast Guard/Released)

The Coast Guard’s Honolulu ­-based “Indo-­Pacific Support Cutter ” CGC Harriet Lane returned to port Tuesday after its first patrol across Oceania.

The Coast Guard’s Honolulu ­-based “Indo-­Pacific Support Cutter ” CGC Harriet Lane returned to port Tuesday after its first patrol across Oceania.

It’s a new mission for an old ship. The Harriet Lane is a 40-year-old, 270-foot Medium Endurance Cutter—known to the Coast Guard personnel who operate them as “270s.” It arrived in Hawaii in December after undergoing over a year’s worth of renovations at a Baltimore shipyard. It’s the 11th cutter to be assigned to the Honolulu-based Coast Guard District 14.

In January it set sail for its first patrol, heading south into the high seas where members of its crew boarded fishing vessels to look for signs of illegal fishing. Over the course of its 79-day deployment, the cutter and its crew made port calls in American Samoa, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Nauru and the Marshall Islands.

Over the course of the patrol, its crew participated in 27 vessel boardings and documented 12 violations of fishery laws.

The Coast Guard has worked to increase its presence and operations in the Pacific. In February 2023, Rear Adm. Michael Ryan, the Coast Guard deputy commandant for operations and policy, told military news outlet Defense One that the service intends to triple its deployments in the Pacific in coming years.

The Lane’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Nicole Tesoniero, said “the Harriet Lane delivered on a commitment made to our Pacific partners for a more robust and persistent Coast Guard presence across the region … My confidence is bolstered by knowledge that the Harriet Lane is manned with a dedicated, professional and compassionate crew that could not be better equipped to handle the unique demands of this mission.”

Many Pacific Island countries lack navies or coast guards of their own, limiting their ability to patrol and enforce laws in their often vast territorial waters. Many have signed “shiprider agreements ” with the U.S. Coast Guard, in which local officials and law enforcement professionals ride along in U.S. vessels, giving local authorities access to U.S. personnel and resources to assist in operations.

Over the course of the Lane’s deployment, the ship and the crew did four boardings on the open ocean, with the rest in the maritime territory—or Exclusive Economic Zones—of Pacific Island countries alongside local authorities. Tesoniero said that working with shipriders aboard the Lane and learning about each country’s unique needs was a highlight of the deployment.

“Even ones that embarked for two or three days fell into the fold with the crew, ” she said.

The Lane and its crew also did a series of training and community outreach during port calls along the way. Ensign Aaron Motis said that a highlight of his deployment was visiting schools in Vanuatu, where members of the crew taught children about ocean safety and conservation.

Motis said throughout the deployment it was “great helping out the community and just like experiencing each culture and how different each one was and how they’re super welcoming.”

The Coast Guard has played an increasingly important role in U.S. strategy in the Pacific as Washington and Beijing compete for influence in the region. China has worked to build up influence around the globe, bringing several countries into its Belt and Road Initiative—a series of Chinese government-funded construction and infrastructure projects around the globe.

In Pacific Island nations that includes ports to support Chinese vessels and seafood-processing plants. Pacific Island nations rely on fishing charters and licenses to foreign fishermen as a critical source of income for their economies and have to walk a fine line between preserving and profiting from the fish in their waters.

Vanuatu is one of the countries that has signed the Belt and Road Initiative. In February, members of the Vanuatu police who were aboard the Lane as shipriders and working with the U.S. Coast Guardmen boarded several fishing boats and found that six Chinese vessels were violating local laws, including failing to record fish caught in their logbooks.

The Lane’s visit was the first time in years Vanuatu officials were able to physically inspect Chinese vessels actively fishing in their waters. In a statement to Reuters about the alleged violations, the Chinese Embassy in Vanuatu said the boats had fishing permits from Vanuatu’s government and that no crimes had occurred because “Chinese companies obey Vanuatu laws.”

On Friday, China’s ambassador to New Zealand Wang Xiaolong told reporters in the region that shiprider agreements and boardings of Chinese vessels are “illegal ” and “not binding to third parties.” When asked about the remarks at a news conference for Lane’s return to Hawaii, Coast Guard District 14 commander Rear Adm. Michael Day said “it’s an inaccurate statement, so I welcome the opportunity to correct the record.”

Day said, “These bilateral engagements are made in accordance with international law, with the host nation and the United States … We do these boardings at the behest of the host nations that invite us to work with them collaboratively to protect their EEZ’s.” He added that the U.S. does not target Chinese vessels and regularly boards vessels flagged to other countries that are operating around the region, and that most shiprider agreements have existed for decades.

The Lane’s crew has had little time for rest between arriving in Hawaii in December and deploying in January. They’re set for a busy year, with plans to deploy again as soon as June with another long patrol of the Pacific to make room in Pearl Harbor for international ships coming in this summer to participate in Exercise Rim of the Pacific—the world’s largest naval war game.

“Honestly, most of this in-port will be preparing for our next out-port, ” said Motis.


(c) 2024 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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