An Indo-Pacific test case: Tackling illegal fishing with counternarcotics tactics

A fishing boat is seen from an aircraft of the Ecuadorian navy after a fishing fleet of mostly Chinese-flagged ships was detected in an international corridor that borders the Galapagos Islands' exclusive economic zone, in the Pacific Ocean August 7, 2020. Picture taken August 7, 2020.  REUTERS/Santiago Arcos
Editor's note:

This piece is part of a series titled “Nonstate armed actors and illicit economies in 2022” from Brookings’s Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU-F) has quickly become one of the largest environmental and economic issues facing the globe, as fish are responsible for providing an estimated 3.3 billion people with almost 20% of their average intake of animal protein. Though a commonly used policy term, it encompasses a wide variety of harmful fishing activity that threatens global fish stocks, endangers the livelihoods of as many as 39 million fishers, and in many cases enriches illicit criminal networks. To combat these criminal networks in a more holistic way, build more meaningful relationships with Indo-Pacific partners, and increase U.S. maritime presence in the Pacific, Congress should charge the Department of Defense with a more direct supporting role in combatting IUU-F.

The defense approach to countering illegal drugs

The United States has a long history of combatting transnational criminal organizations that use illicit drugs as their primary funding mechanism. As part of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s war on drugs, the Department of Defense (DOD) was given the statutory mission to detect and monitor aerial and maritime illegal drug shipments to the U.S. Two task forces were subsequently created to address the flows. Now known as Joint Interagency Task Forces (JIATF), these military commands are each led by a Coast Guard admiral and combine the resources and organization of the U.S. military with a robust interagency and intelligence community component that makes them uniquely suited to tackling law enforcement missions with a defense mentality.

The mission to stop Asian precursor chemicals used in the manufacturing of many synthetic drugs from entering this country by sea has fallen to JIATF West, based in Hawaii. While its counterpart in Florida, JIATF South, routinely interdicts a massive flow of cocaine from South America using sophisticated intelligence and significant maritime and air assets from the Coast Guard, DOD, and partner nations, JIATF West’s mission and tactics are quite different. Unlike the familiar images of drug runners in sleek “go-fast” vessels evading detection in the Caribbean, much of the drug trafficking in the Indo-Pacific occurs intermingled with the massive volume of legitimate cargo traffic between Asia and North America. This makes the nature of their work less about real-time tasking of military or law enforcement assets to interdict ships at sea, and more about building information-sharing networks with law enforcement and military agencies in the U.S. and throughout the region. This sharing of actionable intelligence allows port authorities, customs officials, and law enforcement throughout the Pacific to distinguish illicit narcotics and drug precursors from a sea of legitimate cargo. Because most of their interdictions are conducted by local authorities and foreign partners, metrics of their interdictions are not as easy to come by as those of their asset-heavy partners at JIATF South. Their unique experience working closely with Indo-Pacific partners on law enforcement, gathering intelligence on an illicit activity that has legitimate uses as well, and operating in a vast ocean space makes them well-suited to tackling IUU-F.

Not all IUU-F is linked to organized crime. In many instances, harmful fishing practices are the result of desperation, greed, or negligence. But law enforcement agencies around the globe have seen an increased link between IUU-F and the funding of transnational criminal activities.

This means we need to take a comprehensive approach to countering IUU-F and not look at it as solely an environmental management problem. When transnational criminal organizations turn to legitimate economic activity and natural resources to fund their destabilizing activities, we must approach the dismantling of that activity in a networked, comprehensive way.

Indo-Pacific nations need sustainable fisheries

Indo-Pacific nations care deeply about fish. It is a major source of protein, livelihoods, and cultural identity. In populous Southeast Asia, 64% of fisheries are at medium to high risk from overfishing. Poor labor practices, lack of oversight, climate change, and intractable maritime disputes all add to the strain on this critical resource. The value of fish and fish products in Asia can also be staggering. According to Interpol, one kilogram of totoaba fish bladder is worth more than one kilogram of cocaine on illegal Asian markets — a low-risk, high-rewards alternative fetching up to $50,000 per bladder.

Though by no means the sole nation-state facilitator of IUU-F, China has uniquely utilized its massive, subsidized distant-water fishing fleet to intimidate neighboring claimants in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and leverage their economic power to negotiate unsustainable fishing rights around the globe.

IUU-F is not unique to the Indo-Pacific, but the problem is uniquely suited to American action in that important region.

Current U.S. government approach to IUU-F

It is well-established customary international law that ships may fly the flag of only one state, and that state has exclusive jurisdiction over it on the high seas. But the go-fast vessels JIATF South deals with in the Caribbean are mostly stateless. For those who do claim nationality, the U.S. has negotiated bilateral ship boarding agreements with most source countries, gaining permission to conduct law enforcement missions against those vessels.

Such an arrangement is not as easy to come by in the global fishing industry. Most vessels engaged in IUU-F are indeed registered to a “flag state.” While the U.S. government has pushed to expand boarding agreements in the region, there is little hope of obtaining comprehensive agreements with the largest distant water fishing fleets (e.g. China’s, South Korea’s, and Japan’s). Absent an agreement, there is no way to conduct a law enforcement boarding at sea without the permission of the flag state, which is often reluctant to act. Even if a boarding was conducted and IUU-F practices identified, there is no enforcement capability without the desire of the flag state. Well-documented cases forwarded to appropriate countries are often never acted upon.

Congress’ recent passage of the Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement (SAFE) Act is a response to this dilemma. It aims to address the problem through coordination, stricter inspection regimes at U.S. ports used to land catch, furthering the international reach of the Port State Measures Agreement to prevent landing at foreign ports, and increased intelligence sharing. To better address the need for a whole-of-government approach, it formalized an interagency working group including the DOD.

The concept of knowing and understanding what exists in the ocean spaces under a nation’s control is known as “maritime domain awareness,” or MDA. MDA is in high demand across the globe as more countries realize the gaps in their ocean knowledge and embrace the need to protect their critical resources. For most coastal nations, fish are one of the most important critical resources that they have. Under international law, every nation is entitled to a 200 nautical mile “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) off their coastlines, where they have exclusive rights to natural resources. Much IUU-F activity occurs by ships encroaching within a country’s EEZ and poaching fish that rightfully belong to that coastal state.

Leveraging the resources of DOD to provide this MDA to Indo-Pacific partners would not only help curb IUU-F activity, it may be the type of economic and security partnership that our partners in the region are craving. Gathering, evaluating, and sharing this information in a responsible manner is a challenge — but one that the DOD may be best suited to do.

Where our Pacific partners lack the physical assets to respond to actionable intelligence, U.S. and allied maritime and air assets could be offered, when available, to support an interdiction or boarding, utilizing the coastal state’s authority to enforce fisheries laws in their EEZ. This is particularly effective when local law enforcement are available to serve as shipriders onboard U.S. and allied assets — conducting the law enforcement mission themselves with our platform support. Alternatively, where no such assets are available, JIATF West would be well-suited to document the activity, track the vessel, and share that information with the flag state, coastal states that it transits, and the port that it is destined to.

Partner of choice in the Indo-Pacific

Vesting JIATF West — part of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command — with this new mission will bring a much-needed operational perspective to combating IUU-F. Using JIATF West’s existing network of relationships with Pacific law enforcement agencies, adding intelligence capabilities, and expanding the number of maritime patrol aircraft and ships under their control could illuminate the relationship between IUU-F and transnational criminal organizations, while enhancing MDA for Indo-Pacific partners. Identifying vessels engaged in suspected IUU-F activity, sharing that information with coastal states and flag states alike — and even publicizing it when appropriate — may be just the tactic that is needed in combating this harmful practice. Where we cannot prosecute vessels engaged in IUU-F, we can “name and shame” publicly if appropriate, put additional pressure on flag states to act, and unravel illicit networks that profit from this activity.

The ravages of climate change will continue to put immense pressure on the world’s fisheries, causing further conflict and food insecurity and fueling even more illegal activity. Combating that certainly deserves the laser focus of our defense capabilities.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Brookings Institution.