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In a darkened and hushed aircraft interior, Private Paul Edwards adjusts the sensors on a bank of surveillance equipment to study the registration markings on a ship displayed on one of the screens.

The crew aboard the Royal Canadian Air Force Aurora aircraft are on a routine patrol over the Strait of Georgia. This is a short run, but since 1993, the 407 Long Range Patrol Squadron has been part of an international hunt for illegal fishing activities – an operation to chase the last drift-net fleets out of the North Pacific.

Once the domain of environmental-conservation groups like Sea Shepherd, the campaign against drift nets has become an increasingly high-tech effort. Operation High Seas Driftnet is run by enforcement agencies in five countries – Canada, the United States, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

With 3.4 million square nautical miles of ocean to monitor, the joint fisheries mission has, over the span of 20 years, nudged the partner countries toward genuine co-operation.

Under the unwieldy title of the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, the enforcement agencies seek to protect an economic asset – their respective commercial fisheries of Pacific salmon and steelhead trout – as well as a fragile ecosystem threatened by the deadly floating nets.

The last vessel seized by the joint forces was the Da Cheng, which was found 1,500 kilometres east of Japan. Running without any national flag, the crew had set a net almost 20 km long. In the ship's holds, investigators found 30 tonnes albacore tuna, a large number shark carcasses and 500 kilograms worth of shark fins. What that inventory doesn't show is the byproduct of drift-net fishing – the dead and dying marine mammals that retired fishery officer Robert Martinolich has seen entangled in the nets or bleeding on the decks, destined to be tossed overboard.

The past

Mr. Martinolich, former chief of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' enforcement operations for the Pacific, and later the head of the joint commission's enforcement committee, recalls the futility of Canada's first aerial surveillance efforts.

"It was, 'go out and fly, and hopefully run into something,' " he said in an interview.

"My first flight was in 1991. We spent 10, 12 hours a day staring out the window at water. There was not much excitement." The CP-140 Auroras are aging and costly to keep in the air, but they are among the few aircraft in the world equipped to effectively search such a vast expanse.

Canada's political commitment began with an extraordinary private meeting, in 1989, between Japanese prime minister Toshiki Kaifu and prime minister Brian Mulroney, where the Canadian leader demanded that Japan stop using drift nets in Pacific fishing.

At that time, up to 1,000 ships were setting five million square kilometres of translucent nets each year in the Pacific.

"It kills everything – birds, marine mammals," said Larry Paike, the DFO's director of conservation and protection for the Pacific region. "And if it becomes too cumbersome, they'll cut the net and leave it. Then, when all the flesh rots, it rises to the surface and starts all over again." Late in 1989, the General Assembly of the United Nations called for a moratorium on the "highly indiscriminate and wasteful" practice of drift-net fishing, to be enacted by 1992. Canada was part of the international pressure that led to the global moratorium on all large-scale driftnet fishing, but the U.S. wielded the heaviest stick, threatening trade sanctions against Japan if it did not abandon its drift-net fleets.

The co-ordinated enforcement effort began in 1993 and has officially yielded 19 seizures of boats. (Mr. Martinolich puts the count at 28 – if salmon are not clearly the main target, the commission doesn't count the ship even when it has been apprehended.) Many of the ships hailed from Russia, China and Taiwan, but others flew flags of convenience or were registered nowhere at all.

The vessel's nation is responsible for prosecuting the violator, and when Russia stepped in for the first time to prosecute ships from its own ports, a measurable chill went through the industry.

"The Russians intercepted one, seized the vessel, cut it up for scrap and threw everyone in jail," said Mr. Paike, with satisfaction. That single, concrete commitment to enforcement made a measurable dent in the illegal activities.

The present

Blair Thexton of Canada's Maritime Security Operations Centre said tactics have evolved significantly in the 20 years of the mission. His task is to help narrow down high-risk areas, incorporating advanced satellite imagery technology from the Canadian military, along with data about sea surface temperatures (which help predict salmon locations), historic vessel movements and past intercepts.

Within those 3.4 million square nautical miles of blue ocean, the air surveys this year focused on an area just one-tenth the size, close to the Japanese and Russian coastlines.

But, as the surveillance gets more sophisticated, so too do their targets.

"The drift netters are not unintelligent. They hide their equipment, paint over registration numbers, fly fake flags," Mr. Thexton noted. "They monitor radio frequencies and they can cut their nets loose."

Arrests peaked in the late 1990s and the partner countries have had to become more collaborative to keep up the pressure. This year the operation was based in Hakodate, Japan – a significant diplomatic breakthrough that has allowed the Aurora crews far more time patrolling the high-risk areas than they had at their previous Alaska base.

The future

But the decline in arrests and boat seizures – there have been none this year – has two possible explanations. Either the drift netters are outwitting their hunters, or they have been deterred.

"That's a difficult question to answer," said Mr. Paike. "There is a decrease in the number of vessels we are encountering, which is a good thing … I like to think we are deterring the industry." The risk of success, however, is that the federal government might reconsider its financial commitment.

Brent Napier is the DFO's chief of enforcement programs for conservation and protection in Ottawa.

There are always cost pressures, he agreed, but he believes Canada has learned from its Atlantic fishery experience – a maintained enforcement presence is required, or the deterrent factor disappears.

"We're very leery of that – when you pull out enforcement, we see a resurgence of the illegal activity," he said. The drift-net industry is too lucrative to just hope it will not rebound.

He said there is another fiscal imperative, not so easy to measure as a budget line item: What would Canada`s fisheries look like if it had not taken on the drift-net industry?

"The key is the conservation piece, they are taking this catch at the expense of future generations. That's the cost that needs to be factored in," Mr. Napier said.

"What does it cost you not to do it?"