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On the way back to its San Diego home port, the U.S. Navy’s Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group received a new mission: patrolling protected fishing areas in the southern Pacific, searching for fishing vessels without proper permits.

While the Navy has been assisting in the Oceania Maritime Security Initiative since 2009, previous missions have largely been handled by the Coast Guard, Navy Times reports. This is the first time an aircraft carrier has been deployed for use in fighting illegal fishing in Oceania, a large region comprising 22 Pacific Island nations northeast of Australia.

The region is home to the “Tuna Belt,” an equatorial area that currently provides 57 percent of the world’s tuna. The Coast Guard estimates that illegal fishing costs the small island nations in the region upwards of $1.7 billion annually.

The Carl Vinson, along with destroyer Halsey and cruiser Bunker Hill, participated in a sweep of the fisheries for nine days, from May 7 through May 15. During that time the air wing attached to Carl Vinson flew over 60 sorties, scanning the waters and identifying possible rogue fishing boats, which were then contacted by the Coast Guard. The carrier group provided a full 35 percent of all contact and vessel data gathered so far since the mission’s 2009 inception.

Capt. John Steinberger, commodore and commander of San Diego-based Destroyer Squadron 1 aboard the Vinson, sees the Navy involvement in Oceania as an “enduring mission” that will likely place further demands on U.S. forces in coming years as depleted tuna stocks around the globe pose the potential to drive more illegal fishing vessels into protected waters.

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