Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a shrouded industry of poaching, smuggling, and legal gamesmanship that often abuses disadvantaged areas without effective government enforcement. As the stability of fisheries and international norms is tested, unlawful fishing will grow increasingly destructive to the security of nations and their waters. The United States and allies can—and should—do more to stop IUU fishing.
Pipeline to Piracy
Amid an inundation of illegal fishing fleets off the coast of Somalia during the 1990s and 2000s, some local fishermen took matters into their own hands by seizing foreign trawlers. Owners of vessels operating without a license were quick to pay ransoms, lest their criminal activities be publicized. According to regional expert Tsuma Charo, these profits “allowed the pirates to build up their tactical networks and whetted their appetite for bigger spoils.”1 The skills honed through these extrajudicial enforcement operations transferred to professional piracy, plotting a direct link between a regional scourge of illegal fishing and the international epidemic of Somali piracy throughout the early 2010s.2
Having fished their home stocks of yellow croaker to collapse, Chinese fleets have found their way to the Gulf of Guinea with ships that can catch in days what local fisherman would harvest over weeks. Like in Somalia during the decade prior, incidents of piracy have risen in the Gulf of Guinea, where governments are ill-equipped to enforce fishing regulations.3
An influx of Chinese ships in the Spratly Islands offers a glimpse into future tactics of the South China Sea territorial dispute. For years, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels have sat at Subi and Mischief Reefs—well outside China’s own waters and well within the Philippines’ 200–nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. The flotilla is both too inactive and too large to be a profitable fishing fleet; it is estimated this Chinese force alone could fish between 50 and 100 percent of the catch in the Spratlys.4 This potentially devastating blow to local marine populations has gone largely unrealized.
Lashed together and roughly grouped by size, the ships appear “as if they’re brand new.” In early 2021, hundreds of Chinese fishing ships were found anchored within the boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef 175 miles south of the Philippines. These crews are not riding out “rough seas,” as the Chinese have asserted.5 Through overwhelming numbers, China’s latent fleet seeks to assume de facto control of the occupied region without sparking international furor.
This ostensibly civilian maritime militia harasses foreign vessels without escalating to clear armed aggression. The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) was formed in the aftermath of the Chinese revolution with the purpose of bolstering China’s naval presence by carrying out gray zone actions under the guise of a civilian fishing fleet.6 Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst Gregory Poling sums up the PAFMM’s advantage as the ability to “bully one of the neighbors without actually shooting anybody.”7 Lacking the assets to counter distant water fleets, countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam have found their seas increasingly encroached upon.
In what may portend future tension on the high seas, the United States has faced significant clashes with China’s armada. After a Chinese military aircraft buzzed the ship 11 times, the surveillance vessel USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23) was surrounded by five Chinese trawlers on 8 March 2009. As a Chinese marine surveillance cutter and PLA Navy ship looked on, the trawlers attempted to destroy the Impeccable’s towed sonar array by driving over it and grappling it with hooks. When the Impeccable requested a path to withdraw, the trawlers stopped in front of the Impeccable and dropped wood in the water to impede safe navigation.
Only once the United States had lodged a public complaint did Chinese state media declare that the “military is ready to call an end to the standoff.”8 The destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (DDG-93) later escorted the Impeccable to complete her mission, but soon after, the surveillance ship USNS Victorious (T-AGOS-19) experienced similar harassment while conducting operations nearby.9 The incidents could have been an attempt to test the mettle of the then-fresh Obama administration, as well as to gauge the grit of the Navy and its partners.
China will continue to exploit global impassivity toward dubious fishing vessels by using the PAFMM to probe the periphery of Beijing’s sphere of influence and gauge the United States’ capacity for expert sea control. The United States’ national strategy is increasingly focused on a high-end fight, but failing to curb gray-zone territorial exploitation risks ceding the rules-based order to low-end threats.
Historically, it may have been easy to dismiss illegal fishers or a pseudo-civilian militia as a low-intensity issue. However, this problem has already “gone kinetic” and risked lives in several cases. On discovering the Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010 fishing illegally and pursuing her toward international waters, in March 2016 the Argentine Naval Prefecture shot and sank the Chinese fishing ship after she reportedly made several attempts to ram an Argentine Coast Guard vessel.10 In October 2016, a Chinese trawler rammed and sank a South Korean Coast Guard boat that attempted to interdict it in the Yellow Sea.11
Hiding on the High Seas
Because vessels are beholden to their flag nation’s laws while in international waters, IUU fishing outfits intentionally select flag countries with lax or nonexistent regulatory enforcement. Flying a flag-of-convenience is common in international shipping, where 39 percent of the world’s shipping tonnage is flagged in either Panama, Liberia, or the Marshall Islands.12 Even landlocked countries such as Bolivia and Mongolia have become flag-of-convenience providers.13 The disinterest of these states means offenders face no accountability even when inhumane labor conditions or high seas crimes are documented and reported.
The 2009 Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) tried to reduce reliance on flag states to punish offenders. The agreement delegates authority to identify and discipline offenders through inspection and reporting to ports. Penalties in the PSMA can be levied by the port state through fines or the revocation of port-visit rights without international adjudication. While inventive, this approach is only as effective as the enforcement of the port nation.
The United States has successfully prosecuted some unlawful importers, but a smattering of legal victories has done little to stifle the increasingly evasive and organized IUU fishing industry. The United States’ primary weapon is the Lacey Act, a statute passed in 1900 to prohibit the trade of poached plants and animals. Enforcements such as a 2001 sentence against importers of illegal rock crab that included jail time and $54.9 million restitution are formidable, but fishing-related convictions under the law are rare.14 IUU fishing operations obscure the true origins of their cargo to impede investigation, and illegal fish are often mixed with legitimate catches or transferred to refrigerator transshipment ships that can remain unassociated with the offending fleets.
Fish stocks have decreased by 50 percent since 1950, while fishing equipment has become 10 times more effective.15 Only 15 percent of fisheries can support contemporary withdrawals and are considered underfished or not fully exploited. The majority have not fared as well—85 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully fished or overfished. If current trends continue, populations in the overfished and fully fished categories will increase while species that have the numbers left to regenerate will dwindle.
Roughly a billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein; it is a resource the world cannot afford to lose.16 While national and international rules to manage fisheries exist, they are only as strong as their enforcement mechanisms. For years, Ecuador has faced the herculean task of policing the edge of its ecological reserves with minimal resources against some 300 Chinese vessels.17 In her February 2021 Proceedings article, Coast Guard Commander Jennifer Runion outlined the benefits of establishing a joint fishing commission with U.S. and Latin American countries to combat the flotilla taking catches far from home and far outside the law.18 Overmatched and overwhelmed, many national navies and coast guards struggle to combat IUU fishing in their waters.
Don’t Catch and Release
Additional international efforts will help curb IUU fishing in time, but the United States can apply existing policies with greater force. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been required to produce a biennial report on nations with outfits engaged in IUU fishing since 2009. During the intervening two years, NOAA consults with countries identified in the report to decide whether to certify them positively or negatively based on improvement. A positive certification averts potential penalties while a negative certification can trigger import restrictions and denial of port access.
In each report since 2013, Mexico has been identified as having vessels engaged in IUU fishing violations—leading to the deaths of hundreds of sea turtles and rampant poaching of U.S. red snapper stocks.19 Mexico received the first-ever negative certification from NOAA in 2021, indicating progress, but restrictions to correct foreign apathy remain undecided.20 The executive branch, including NOAA, should vigorously enforce laws and impose penalties to combat illegal fishing. The United States is one of the world’s largest seafood importers, and levying import limits on countries flouting rules can have significant effects on those engaged in illicit behavior, as well as improve the health of fish populations.
Joint Navy and Coast Guard programs can help stop IUU fishing at its source and where the services are most effective—on the seas. Through the Oceania Maritime Security Initiative (OMSI), foreign service members from Pacific Island nations such as the Marshall Islands, Nauru, and Micronesia are brought on board U.S. ships as shipriders to observe and participate in fishery enforcement boardings. The benefits are twofold: Shipriders receive training in boarding and inspection methods while U.S. forces fortify the rule of law in the face of bold seaborne exploitation.21 The OMSI should be a framework for future U.S. partnerships with additional nations, including hotspots with a history of violence at sea. U.S. efforts to reinforce partners are a politically, legally, and militarily savvy way to uphold international rules while supporting national interests.
The U.S. fish import market is supplied by catches from around the world, giving the U.S. government a significant stake in ensuring the stability of global fisheries. One out of three pounds of fish imported to the United States was caught, processed, or sold unlawfully.22 Globally, it is estimated that one in five pounds of fish are landed illegally, equating to as much as $24 billion in yearly revenues.23 By intensifying efforts to combat IUU fishing, the United States can demonstrate fidelity to its partners, reduce lawlessness on the seas, and combat a worsening environmental issue, thereby protecting fisheries for generations to come.
1. Ishaan Tharoor, “How Somalia’s Fishermen Became Pirates,” Time Magazine, 18 April 2009.
2. National Intelligence Council, Global Implications of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, 19 September 2016.
3. BBC News, “How China’s Trawlers are Emptying Guinea’s Oceans,” BBC, 8 July 2016.
4. Gregory B. Poling, Illuminating the South China Sea’s Dark Fishing Fleets, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9 January 2019.
5. Julie McCarthy, “Chinese Ship Deployment Roils South China Sea,” NPR, 26 March 2021.
6. Derek Grossman and Logan Ma, “A Short History of China’s Fishing Militia and What It May Tell Us,” RAND Corporation, 6 April 2020.
7. McCarthy, “Chinese Ship Deployment Roils South China Sea.”
8. Michael Green, Kathleen Hicks, Zack Cooper, John Schaus, and Jake Douglas, “Counter-Coercion Series: Harassment of the USNS Impeccable,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 9 May 2017.
9. Barbara Starr, “Chinese Boats Harassed U.S. Ship, Officials Say,” CNN News, 5 May 2009.
10. “Argentina Sinks Chinese Trawler During Pursuit for Illegal Fishing,” The Guardian, 15 March 2016.
11. Jo He-rim, “Chinese Fishing Boats Sink a Korean Coast Guard Vessel,” The Korea Herald, 9 October 2016.
12. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Chapter 2: Structure and Ownership of the World Fleet, in Review of Maritime Transport 2009 (New York and Geneva: United Nations, December 2009), 36.
13. Matthew Gianni and Walt Simpson, The Changing Nature of High Seas Fishing, Australian Government, International Transport Workers’ Federation, and WWF International, October 2005.
14. Reed Albergottim, “South Africa Awarded Delicious Sum for Stolen Lobster,” The Wall Street Journal, 21 August 2012.
15. National Intelligence Council, Global Implications of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing.
16. Gregory B. Poling and Conor Cronin, Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing as a National Security Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 2017.
17. “Ecuador Monitoring Fleet of Fishing Vessels Near Galapagos,” Reuters, 23 July 2020.
18. CDR Jennifer Runion, USCG, “Protect Western Hemisphere Fish,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 147, no. 2 (February 2021).
19. John Burnett, “A Battle on the Gulf Pits the Coast Guard against Mexican Red Snapper Poachers,” NPR, 12 August 2021.
20. NOAA Fisheries, Report on IUU Fishing, Bycatch and Shark Catch, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, August 2021.
21. U.S. Third Fleet Public Affairs, “Coast Guard, Navy High Seas Oceania Maritime Security Initiative Patrol Continues,” U.S. Navy, 10 May 2021.
22. Pramod, Nakamura, Pitcher, and Delagram, “Estimates of Illegal and Unreported Fish in Seafood Imports to the USA,” Marine Policy 48, September 2014.
23. David J. Agnew, John Pearce, Ganapathiraju Pramod, Tom Peatman, Reg Watson, John R. Beddington, and Tony J. Pitcher, “Estimating the Worldwide Extent of Illegal Fishing,” PLOS One, 25 February 2009.