It stretches from the equator to the Arctic, the eastern coasts of Asia to the western coasts of British Columbia and Ecuador. The North Pacific is home to the largest fisheries on Earth, many of them falling prey to illegal fishing.

Most of this vast stretch of ocean is governed by The Law of the Sea, a 300-year-old law to which 169 members of the United Nations are signatories.

Unfortunately, some of those states openly flaunt both the spirit and the letter of the law. We’ve told you about the unreported catch of Canadian salmon by the Alaskan fleet.

Credit: A. Davey

But in 2018, the U.S. Coast Guard observed a Chinese-flagged vessel deploying a 5.6-mile long gill net in international waters off the coast of Japan. They detained the Run Da and found in its hold 80 tons of illegally caught chum salmon and a ton of illegally caught squid. It was a  wake-up call for Canada. It was time to start taking illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing seriously again.

While the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates global losses of 11 to 26 million tonnes of fish worth between $10 billion and $23 billion a year to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the fact is we just don’t know how bad the problem is. Canada, the U.S., and Japan are teaming up to change that.

This summer, Canada led for the first time Operation North Pacific Guard, an annual international enforcement operation using International Law to board vessels suspected of illegal fishing. Over two months using ship, satellite and air surveillance over 12,000 nautical miles of ocean, Canadian officers collected evidence of 58 incidents of illegal activity, including the discovery of over 3,000 illegally possessed or stored shark fins, some of them from threatened species.

It’s a great start. However, combined, the partner countries only managed 30 days of boardings across 30 million square kilometers of open ocean – where China alone has 1,200 fishing vessels.

Illegal fishing is devastating our oceans. We need to know what it is doing to our migrating salmon. Our government must expand patrols and enforcement if our fisheries are to survive.