Two people leaning on railing on ship (U.S. Coast Guard/Melissa E. McKenzie)
This member of the U.S. Coast Guard on a fishing vessel was part of a team that conducted patrols with counterparts from the Marshall Islands in 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard/Melissa E. McKenzie)

The Republic of the Marshall Islands has a big job: watching over 2.1 million square kilometers of ocean in its exclusive economic zone, the area of water in which it has sovereign rights for fishing, drilling and other economic activities. The chain of islands consists of 181 square kilometers of land.

Through international accords known as “shiprider” agreements, U.S. ships can help the Marshall Islands monitor these waters. Thanks to a 2013 agreement, the island nation’s law enforcement officers can embark on U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy vessels and become “shipriders.” They interdict vessels involved in illicit activity, such as shark-finning and drug and weapon smuggling.

In the Pacific, the U.S. has shiprider agreements with the Cook Islands, Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Palau, Nauru and Tuvalu.

People standing on old fishing boat (U.S. Coast Guard/USCGC Kukui)
A U.S. Coast Guard boarding team that includes a shiprider from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, on a fishing vessel in the Pacific Ocean in 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard/USCGC Kukui)

The Marshall Islands established the world’s largest shark sanctuary in 2011. This banned commercial shark fishing in its vast stretch of ocean. So when Marshallese shipriders aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter encountered an illegal shark-fishing boat, they shut it down and fined the vessel $125,000.

“We have generated income from the law, and we have made believers out of those who thought that it would not be enforceable,” said Tony deBrum, a former political leader of the Marshall Islands, in an interview with Pew Charitable Trusts.

Shipriders make a difference

Illegal, unreported and unregulated tuna fishing costs Pacific nations more than $600 million per year, according to a 2016 estimate. A study puts that number at up to $23.5 billion worldwide — or one in every five fish caught.

That makes a huge difference in people’s lives. The World Bank estimates that fisheries support the livelihoods of 10 to 12 percent of the world’s population.

“Setting up these bilateral shiprider agreements allows us to both protect our own [exclusive economic zones], but also help out and build capacity and capability with those countries we have agreements with,” said Richard Howes of the U.S. Coast Guard, who oversaw enforcement operations in the Pacific in 2016, in an interview with Sea Power magazine.