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Episode 4 - The One A-boat International Patrols

September 21 2022

The One A-boat International Patrols - In this episode, Lauren and Mikey are joined by Sean Wheeler, Chief of International Programs, along with senior fishery officers Nick Horscroft and Mya Cormie, to learn more about some of DFO’s international patrols, including off the coast of Japan, dark vessel detection, and what makes for a good officer on the high seas.

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Episode 4: The One A-boat International Patrols – Audio transcript


(Sound of waves and a whale call)

on one of these fishing boats, and my colleague and I looked up and then we said, “you saw a lion?” And he had quite good English and he says, “yes, yes, an African lion.”

Lauren Ehrenworth (Co-Host): Hi there, and welcome to the DFO Deep Dive.

I’m Lauren Ehrenworth.

Mikey Rouleau (Co-Host): I am Mikey Rouleau.

Lauren: In our first two episodes, we heard from fishery officers about their work to conserve and protect Canada’s fresh water and marine fishery resources and habitat -- not to mention their work in communities that’s inspiring future generations to use resources in a really sustainable way.

Mikey: But that’s not the only part of the story, Lauren. Today we’re going to hear about their work and partnerships on the high seas.

Lauren: And we’ll get to hear about some international operations you won’t hear anywhere else, and just how different this work this.

Mikey: For sure Lauren.

There’s a lot of operational planning involving both air and sea patrol in order to spot potential illegal fishing, as well as cooperation with international partners to prevent illegal fishing, and preserve fish stocks globally.

Lauren: And as we’ll hear, this involves inspections, or boardings, of foreign vessels to enforce high sea rules, which I’m sure leads to some interesting stories. I mean I know I want to know more.

So, let’s dive right in!

And let's welcome our first two guests to the DFO Deep Dive, Mya Cormier and Nicholas Horscroft, both senior field officers. How are you both doing today?

Mya Cormie (Senior Field Officer, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Conservation & Protection Branch): Very well, thank you.

Nick Horscroft (Senior Field Officer, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Conservation and Protection Branch): Yeah, good. Thanks for having us here.

Lauren: Now let's get started.

What is your role as a fishery officer?

Mya, why don’t we start with you?

Mya Cormie: Alright. Well in Canada, our role as fishery officers are to monitor the fisheries, such as the commercial, recreational, and Indigenous fisheries.

So, we do that in a multitude of ways, including vessel patrols, aerial patrols, we’re checking boats at the docks. We’re also concerned about fish habitat, so conducting inspections to make sure that the fish habitat is protected. And then in the international context, we're involved in international patrols of the high seas, so that's the area outside of the 200 nautical mile limit for the country's exclusive economic zones.

Nick Horscroft: We're all over the place, all of the time. (Laughs)

Mya Cormie: Yes, exactly.

Nick Horscroft: I think what Mya touched on is very good.

It’s the broad spectrum of what we do. It's a very diverse career.

What we do is we divide the coast into management areas, both on the west coast and east coast, and then most of us are based in a detachment in one of those geographical areas. It gives us responsibility in that area where we do exactly what Mya said, we monitor all the fisheries in those specific areas.

Lauren: Now let's bring in Sean Wheeler, who's the chief of International Programs and who can provide some oversight into what work is being done around the globe.

Welcome, Sean.

Sean Wheeler (Senior Compliance Officer, International Programs, Fisheries and Oceans Canada): Thanks Lauren. Thanks for having me.

Lauren: No problem.

And let's start off with you. What is your role as Chief of International Programs?

Sean Wheeler: Yeah, so I manage a small team that looks at international issues in fisheries, so mostly this is looking at high seas -- so all that ocean in terms of the Pacific from our 200-mile limit, all the way to the coast of Japan or Russia, and similarly in the Atlantic. So, you look at the world, most of the oceans are considered high seas, and those have different parameters in terms of legal responsibilities, and also different types of threats in terms of illegal fishing.

So, our program looks at issues of illegal fishing.

We look at trying to address it in sort of two main areas, and that being sort of improving the rules and the legal frameworks that exist out there, and then also enforcing those rules. So, working with patrols and technologies, working with developing countries on their capability in addressing issues of illegal fishing.

So, it's a very dynamic role, it's a very unique role in the department, and we get to work with a lot of very specialized fishery officers who bring their skills to this effort.

Lauren: It's very interesting work you do, and it's probably incredibly different working in international waters as opposed to Canadian waters. So, how does that work affect you, dealing with other countries, maybe different languages, different cultures?

How do you find working in international waters?

Mya Cormie: The difference is, this is in the high seas, this is… these are waters that don't belong to any specific country, so these are international agreements that we’re working on, we’re enforcing. So, we're working really closely with our partner countries, the U.S. Coast Guard, for example, and as well as the Japanese government, so it's also a whole new area that we don't generally work in. So, just becoming familiar with the waters there, the fleets that are present in these fisheries. So, it's a whole learning curve.

Mikey: I bet.

I'd like to circle back on the day-to-day operations and what's it like to be a fishery officer in the middle of international waters. I know the two of you took part in an operation in Japan but had different roles, so could you kind of elaborate on that?

Nick Horscroft: Yeah, we were on the same operation, and the operation has been known as Operation North Pacific Guard, and we both worked in different aspects of that, because I was ship-based, and Mya was air-based. But the amount of planning, Mikey, that had to go into even getting us there was… we’ve been planning since late last year for this year’s operations, and as Sean will be able to tell you, the COVID issues that we had to deal with were significant, to get permission to even go to these countries.

So yeah, even though we were only on the ship for a… for a month or a few weeks each, there were months and months of planning, operational planning basically, which was primarily between us and Japan and the United States, but we had Korean partners this year as well.

So, huge amounts of work go into this. You know, you’re talking about vast areas of ocean, vast areas of ocean with thousands and thousands of vessels, and even with the incredible assets that we had multilaterally, you still can’t possibly hope to do it all, so we had to narrow things down. And I think that speaks to… a little bit to the difference between how the plane operates and the ship operates. The ship… the planes basically kind of locate the targets and then we in the ship would try and get to those targets, to simplify it.

Once we get there, you know, we go our separate ways.

Like I didn't have any sort of contact with Mya personally while we were there. I knew the plane was up. You know, my day-to-day… I’d have my briefings on the ship every day. We’d have multiple briefings to look at… the weather was a huge issue this year. I don't know if people are aware here in Canada, but there were three tropical cyclones -- systems moving through the Northwest Pacific -- which made life on the ship very interesting at times. We had some very big seas.

There were a couple of nights where you're being thrown around in your bunk and you're lucky if you get three hours sleep, you know. And those ships ride really well in the big waves, but there were a couple of nights that were just really, really hairy. And that… and, again, that also meant we couldn't do some of the boardings that we wanted to do.

I don't know, was weather an issue for you?

Mya Cormie: Yeah, we were impacted by the weather as well. There was a typhoon that went through, and it actually moved the fleet out as well…

Nick Horscroft: Right.

Mya Cormie: They weren't comfortable being out there, so that did alter our plans as well.

Mikey: Interesting, I never actually thought of the weather component of this, but obviously it's a major, major factor that will affect and ruin months of planning, perhaps.

Nick Horscroft : So, yeah. So, once you're done months of planning, you get out there, then the weather throws a spanner in the works…

Mya Cormie: Yeah.

Nick Horscroft: … and you've got to adapt to that.

So, it's just… it's an evolving situation.

But I think this year we got a huge amount of work done.

You know, the American Coast Guard is, in my opinion and my experience, they’re a fabulous outfit. Those men and women work extremely hard. Some of those folks are very, very young. It’s a big ship, it’s a 400-foot ship with 160 crew, and we’re just a couple of Canadian fishery officers along… offering our insight and our expertise on the boardings themselves. We have nothing to do with the running of the ship obviously, but we have some insight into operational planning.

And it was a very interesting experience: big weather briefings and ops plans every night, and then the next day we’d jump in the patrol vessel and head out and board some boats, some ships.

Lauren: It sounds like incredible days, and Nick, you must have some really exciting or interesting stories because of the w ork you do, it just probably comes with the territory, right?

Nick Horscroft: Yeah, I mean it’s an amazing thing to be out in the middle of the Pacific, a thousand miles from shore, and be surrounded by fishing fleets. And there were literally thousands of these boats out there, fishing day and night, month on end.

And a big concern, both for Canada and our international partners, is what we call transshipment. And that is a larger vessel that will come out both to resupply the existing ship, shipping fleet, with supplies, and also to do the offloads.

And when you board a boat that's almost as big as the one you’ve just got off, some of these transshipping boats are 300 feet with huge freezers in them, and we’re scrambling down ladders way below decks to do inspections in these holds that are minus 20, and you're coming up occasionally to try and get warm before you go down again. I mean, we've got safety procedures in place with that, for oxygen detectors and gas detectors and all kinds of stuff, so we’re not putting ourselves too much in harm’s way.

So that can get pretty hairy.

And then, obviously, you know, we always try and talk to the fishermen themselves. And most of the fishermen on the fleets are coming from Southeast Asian nations, primarily Indonesia, the Philippines, a little bit from sort of Taiwan, and occasionally further afield. And one of our concerns is the treatment of fishermen on these vessels, so we always check in there.

But a lot of time scrabbling around in fish holds surrounded by frozen smelly fish, that's for sure.

Lauren: (laugh) Oh, I bet! And actually, speaking of which, you're… you are both, Mya and Nick, you guys are out on the ocean, so this is going to maybe be a bit of a silly question, but do you ever get turned off by the smell of the ocean or is it always a welcome feeling? Does it make you love seafood even more?

Mya Cormie: Well, the ocean itself is lovely, but I mean, we do haul a lot of crab and prawn gear here on the B.C. coast and sometimes that can become quite odiferous.


And yeah, so that can definitely turn your stomach at times, but that's all part of the fun of the job!

Nick Horscroft: No one tells you that when you get hired.

Mya Cormie: Yeah.

Nick Horscroft: No one tells you about the smelly fish part when you get hired.

Mya Cormie: No.

Nick Horscroft: You discover that yourself.

Lauren: What are some of the biggest illegal activities you see going on in the waters right now?

Sean Wheeler: Yeah, so basically, through these patrols that we…. That we took place with the United States, or engaged with the United States, we have our aircraft which is conducting broad surveillance across the fleet, and that really helps us narrow down which vessels need to be boarded based on some of their observations.

For example, we saw issues of pollution, we saw issues of shark finning, evidence of shark finning happening on some of these vessels. Some of these things aren't explicitly illegal, and that's part of needing to have eyes and ears out there. We can take some of this evidence to these commissions and then argue for better regulations.

In terms of violations that were encountered on board the vessel, the United States will take lead in this context to inform the countries that have control over those vessels. So, each vessel on the high seas is flagged to a country and… or a member of the commission. It's their responsibility to conduct an investigation and then we hold that member, that country accountable at… within the commission forums to make sure that they’re properly enforcing those regulations.

So, when we have an issue such as failure to maintain a logbook or a shark finning, for example, under the Tuna Commission – which is a violation – that violation package gets sent to the country, and it's up to their authorities to investigate and prosecute that offence. If that isn't done to the satisfaction of all members who are engaged in fishing, then that vessel may actually be banned from fishing in the high seas, which is one of the more significant sanctions that are available.

Mikey: That's very interesting.

In terms of technology, can you elaborate a bit more on the type of technology that we're providing those countries?

Sean Wheeler: Sure. Canada has a lot of history in maritime surveillance, and we've got a lot of history in maritime surveillance from space. I mean, we have the longest coastline, and so comes with that is sort of a need to be able to develop technologies that can detect vessels without necessarily sending a patrol ship for every single occurrence.

So, over the years, Canada has really developed a highly capable space-based, satellite-based series of technologies that can detect vessels.

So, we have a Dark Vessel Detection program; it's a software that we actually give directly to developing countries. So, we're working with Ecuador, we’re working with other small island countries in the South Pacific, and this technology allows them to use satellite technology and monitor their borders for intrusion or monitor protected areas such as the Galapagos Islands and the marine reserve there.

So, we've been deployed there since September and they're actively using it every day to support their patrols. And this is a key area where Canada can support, but support from a distance, which has been sort of a challenge during COVID.

So, this type of technology is one avenue that we can help without being there in person.

Mikey: So, Nick, what’s the craziest thing you've seen on a boat? What's the wildest thing that you've encountered or the wildest story you have that you can share with us on a vessel in the middle of the ocean?

Nick Horscroft: Yeah, that's a great question.

I think the thing that hits me the most is the sheer volume of catch on some of these vessels. I boarded a vessel this… on this patrol, I've been a couple of times now, and it was a factory trawler. It was Russian made, but it was being operated by a Chinese… by a Chinese crew. There were 100 men working down below decks processing fish, and it was something to behold, A, to see these many people in the middle of the ocean working, but secondly, to see the volume of life that's being caught day in, day out, out there.

And as we know -- and I think that's part of the reason that a number of us are driven to do this work -- is the sustainability of catches on the high seas is something I think many people are very, very concerned about. And there’s the chance that there’s interception of Canadian species or… but there's certainly fish being caught that Canadian species are feeding on, and I think it's something that we should be very aware of.

So, that always stays with me.

But in terms of an anecdote, I think… on my first patrol, I boarded one of these larger container transshipment vessels, and I was working away looking through one of the holds in minus 20, and I sort of befriended a young Indonesian fisherman. And he told me right out straight that once he saw an African lion on one of these fishing boats. And my colleague and I looked up at him, and we said, “you saw a lion?” And he had quite good English, and he says, “yes, yes, an African lion.”

So, we had a little bit of a chat about this, and word got back to the Coast Guard vessel that we had found a lion on this ship, which we hadn’t. And so, everyone else (laughs) was like, what is going on, on this boat? You know, when we got back, they were all ready to ask us these questions. But we hadn’t found a lion, we’d found evidence that one had been transshipped, which is also important.

Mikey: That’s pretty wild.

So, you mentioned that that was on your first operation ever?

Nick Horscroft: That’s correct, in 2019 I went on Operation North Pacific Guard with the Coast Guard in 2019.

Mikey: I think I would have maybe changed career paths if I heard that there were lions on ships in the middle of the ocean!


Nick Horscroft: Fair enough.

Lauren: Nick, what led you to this career path? How did you get involved in this?

Nick Horscroft: You would ask me first, wouldn’t you, because my background is a little different to everybody else's, but that's fine. Yeah, that's a really good question.

I mean, I think we all share a passion and a keen interest in protecting what's called the resource, which is our fishery resources and the marine environment. I know all of my colleagues share that passion.

But most of us have gone through what's called an RMOT-type program, a Resource Manager Officer Training program, which are offered in various universities and across the country, but my background is a little different. My degree is in Communications, and I’d spent most of my early working life with at-risk and vulnerable youth. And when I came to Canada, I transitioned into working with Indigenous youth, at-risk Indigenous youth, but I also had a passion for the outdoors and for the environment, a lifelong passion for the environment.

And I was involved in Outward Bound programs, with youth education programs. I worked as a kayak guide, and I worked in the outdoor industry in sort of public relations and marketing, but I'd always had this passion for the environment. You know, when I was a kid in London at school, I’d dream about being a park ranger in Canada or New Zealand. That was my sort of daydream that I'd go to, to sort of get out of London in my head.

And so, one of my colleagues I worked with said, well, have you ever thought about applying to be a fishery officer, because I think you'd really enjoy it, and I think you'd be really good at it. And I hadn’t, and I looked at it, and I thought, you know, this would be a really terrific career.

And I had a go at it, and it seems to have worked out.

So, my path is a little different. We do have some guys and girls who, similar to me, different backgrounds, but I think that speaks to the strength of our organization, really.

Lauren: Mya, I mean, I'm sure you have an interesting pathway too that led you to become a fishery officer as well.

Mya Cormie: Yeah, as Nick mentioned, I had a real interest in conservation and the environment growing up, and I wanted to have a career where I could make a difference in that respect. So, I did go through, as Nick was mentioning, a Resource Management Officer Technology program here on Vancouver Island, then also got my degree in Bachelor of Natural Resource Protection at Vancouver Island University.

During my time there I developed a real interest in the fisheries aspect of conservation and protection, and yeah, and I learned about the fishery officer career through my schooling as well, and I just felt that that was the best fit for me.

And so, I've been lucky enough to do this for almost 11 years now.

Mikey: So, Sean, you have a very specialized role, but what led you to wanting to become Chief of International Program for C&P?

Sean Wheeler: Yeah. So, I joined the Department of Fisheries in 2017, and my background, I came through the RCMP, and I worked on issues of drug trafficking and human trafficking in the maritime environment. So, it… a lot of these apply, similar dynamics; you're trying to find someone that doesn't necessarily want to be found at sea, and so we have a lot of similar challenges to sort of those worlds.

So, I was able to bring that experience over, but I think, at its core, I grew up in the Pacific and I fished salmon my whole life, and I've seen the declines that we've had in that species in particular, so there is also sort of a personal element to applying my experience into an area that's just really important for our country.

Lauren: If you know of someone that's maybe considering this career path, what advice would you have for them?

Mya Cormie: Well, I would advise them to look into the career through our Fishery Officer Career website page on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans website. That'll give a person a good idea of what that job entails.

You could also reach out to a local Conservation and Protection Office and talk to the fishery officers there to get a bit more local knowledge and experience from the officers.

Lauren: Nick, what are some of the personality traits that you think makes for a really good fishery officer?

Nick Horscroft: I think, as Mya said, you’ve got have a passion for the environment. I think that has to be a primary motivation.

And then I think something that's very important is the ability to communicate, because the significant portion of our work is frontline, dealing with our fellow Canadians in a wide variety of situations, whether it's on a commercial fishing vessel at six in the morning at the opening of a fishery, when none of them have slept well; whether it's by the side of a dock; or whether it’s when you’re just launching a patrol vessel and the public approach you to ask you questions.

We do a lot of work with Indigenous communities in Canada, it’s very, very important work. A lot of trust-building and relationship-building and some of our colleagues have done really remarkable work in that arena to gain that trust so that we can work together to protect the resource.

I think you have to be detail oriented. Another thing that we do is investigations, we’re all trained investigators. And some investigations we do are significant and very complex, and they can take a long, long time, because you don't… we don’t really deal in criminal law so much as regulatory law, and that means there’s a lot of involved pieces in the puzzle that go together to get a successful conviction for a violation.

So, one of the great things about this career is how diverse it is, and the broad, broad spectrum of things you have the opportunity to be involved in. And if you have the right skillset and mindset, you can get involved in many, many different things.

Lauren: At the end of your career, when you look back, what are you hoping to be the lasting legacy; the thing you worked hard on that will come to fruition for you?

Sean Wheeler: Well, I think we're in the midst of expanding our role into the high seas, and I'd really like to see our capabilities improve there; so both our enforcement capabilities and also really much stronger regulations around what's acceptable in international waters.

I think those are two key areas that we’re really driving on, and I'd really like to see those be more advanced.

In terms of future operations, we’re committed to continuing this type of operation in both the North Pacific and North Atlantic, the key areas for Canada. But we're also engaged with developing countries around the world, and particularly through partnerships with NGOs.

Canada has actually deployed some technologies to Ecuador, where we're supporting them in protecting the Galapagos Islands. So, these are all programs that fall under our international efforts, and we're really hoping to sort of expand this capability and really be responsive in terms of being able to match the types of threats that we see from illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing around the world.


Lauren: Wow, that… I don't know about you, but I found so much of that incredibly fascinating. You don't tend to hear stories like that every day coming out of government offices.

Mikey: I agree. I didn't even realize that there was that kind of work going on in the middle of the ocean off the coast of Japan, and I think the work they do and the technology that's involved and the operations are really, really, really interesting and it’s quite fascinating work.

Lauren: For sure.

And if any of our listeners are interested in a career as a fishery officer, whether it be in Canada or in international waters, check out our link below. You can click on it and find out some recruitment information and how you can become a fishery officer.

If you have any questions, comments you'd like to pass our way, click on the link below for our email address, we'd love to hear from you.

And tune in next time.

Have a good one.

Mikey: See you next time.

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