Admiral Thomas H. Collins entered the Coast Guard Academy in 1964 and served until 2006, retiring as the 22nd Commandant. From 1996 to 1998, during his years as Commander, 14th Coast Guard District, Honolulu, law enforcement actions against illegal fishing on the high seas of the Pacific were an important component of his multi-hatted mission. In these edited excerpts from his Naval Institute oral history, he recounts the Coast Guard’s actions against China’s Cao Yu 6025 in July 1997.
The Cao Yu 6025 was a large, sea-going fishing vessel, part of an illegal joint venture, with a crew from both Taiwan and China.
High-seas drift-net fishing had been banned by U.N. convention. We were a signatory, and it was one of the Coast Guard’s responsibilities to enforce it. We partnered with Canada and Japan in the northern and western Pacific. We were flying C-130s out of Kodiak on maritime surveillance missions and were receiving intelligence on ship positions from the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific.
We didn’t have an abundance of high-endurance cutters in the 14th District. Most were conducting boundary enforcement missions in District 17/Bering Sea. We had to be creative; in this case, we used District 14 buoy tenders. They are billed as multimission—they can do law enforcement as well as aids to navigation—and we used them as such. The 180-foot USCGC Basswood (WLB-388) was the primary cutter used in this Chinese drift-net incident.
The Cao Yu 6025 was sighted by a P-3 Orion. Then, the Basswood intercepted it and photographed the illegal high-seas drift-net fishing, with a net some 12 miles long. The Cao Yu was ordered to stop but refused. After checking with the Chinese government, which said it was not one of their fishing boats, we classified it as a stateless vessel, thereby coming under U.S. jurisdiction and subject to boarding. They refused to stop and allow us to board and headed back on a course for China. We tracked them for more than 2,000 miles, with the Basswood in chase and a C-130 providing air coverage.
The Cao Yu would not stop and tried several times to ram the Basswood. These were clearly hostile acts against us. In the meantime, the USCGC Chase (WHEC-718), a high-endurance cutter, was coming off deployment in support of Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, on the Pacific Rim. We coordinated with the Navy to get the Chase diverted to assist. After I discussed the situation with the Chase commanding officer, a coordinated operation was planned, which involved the Chase coming over the horizon at first light to intercept the Cao Yu, while the Basswood was in stern chase with the fishing vessel.
The two Coast Guard cutters coordinated a forced boarding with long guns and small boats from their respective ships coming alongside. Boarding team members scaled the sides of the ship and took over the bridge in armed fashion. No one was injured, and the fishing vessel master and crew were so shocked that they did not resist. We seized the vessel and escorted it halfway back to China, where we were relieved by a Chinese fisheries agency law enforcement vessel.
The case was marked by very effective coordination with the People’s Republic of China—a partnership we had developed on fisheries, a strong partnership. They escorted the Cao Yu back to port and impounded the vessel, took the fishing permits away, and fined them millions of dollars. It showed the importance of pre-need relationships and not being afraid to exercise your authorities.
The next morning, I attended a breakfast with U.S. Pacific Command Commander-in-Chief Admiral Joseph Prueher. He had been pre-briefed on the Cao Yu. He approached me at the break, raising the forced boarding and seizure of a Chinese vessel in the western Pacific. At first, he seemed apprehensive, but also impressed as I explained our capabilities, authorities, and advance coordination. I stressed that all boxes had been checked and that our people are trained for this type of operation.