Pacific fishing operators have been sent a clear message, with six boats fined a total of US$1.5 million for breaking rules.
A Honolulu court handed down the fines to US-owned vessels for flouting bans on aggregation devices, but many other boats are suspected of doing the same.
Trained observers who gave crucial evidence are part of a co-ordinated plan to save Pacific fish stocks.
Alex Perrottet reports:
The purse-seine fishing vessels were flouting a 2009 ban on the aggregation devices that attract small bigeye tuna. Peter Sharples, the Observer Support and Development Co-ordinator for the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, says observers were originally on boats to learn fishing skills, but now their main role is to monitor and report.
"PETER SHARPLES: Normally when we're teaching observers we say they've got three roles - one is in science, one is in compliance, making sure the vessel they're on is following the rules, and the third in surveillance. They're out on the fishing grounds and can look around and see what other fishing boats are doing at the same time."
Mr Sharples says the convictions send a message that information will be used against the companies. Dr John Hampton, the Manager of the Oceanic Fisheries Programme, says he commends the US for taking action against their own vessels and others should do the same.
JOHN HAMPTON: All credit to the US Government for zealously following up reports of irregularities amongst its own fleet. They are particularly good at that and follow up these sorts of reports with a lot of vigour, and I think it would be great if other distant-water fishing nations followed suit.
Peter Sharples says vessels haul in large schools of fish, killing off young fish, and rapidly depleting stocks, and countries are not holding their own to account.
PETER SHARPLES: If the US vessels are involved in these misdemeanors then almost certainly the fleets of other nations, the Korean, and Taiwanese, and Japanese fleets, you know I wouldn't like to make a call on which is the worst of those when it comes to offending, but I have no doubt that they all offend equally to the US fleets, if not moreso.
The Deputy Director-General of the Forum Fisheries Agency Wez Norris says part of his organisation's task is to help small islands nations equip themselves to take action against illegal activity in their waters. He says a lot of money is invested in surveillance. In the recently-completed Operation Bigeye, there were six patrol boats, four aircraft, and some 300 people surveying 3 million square kilometres of ocean. Australia, New Zealand and the US covered the more than US$3 million cost of the project, which included aircraft.
WEZ NORRIS: What that does is provide us with a real on-the-water surveillance presence. We have aircraft flying over these vessels as they're fishing and they are able to detect whether they are in fact fishing in accordance with these FAD restrictions.
Wez Norris says individual nations need more capacity to take action. There's a lot of out-of-court settlements between island nations and individual companies, but so far it's only the US companies that have been hit with the fines.