This piece is part of a series titled “Nonstate armed actors and illicit economies in 2023” from Brookings’s Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors.
In 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration strengthened U.S. policy to counter the dangers of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. This year, the United States must urgently begin to translate this framework into robust action around the world. To this end, Washington should prioritize establishing anti-IUU partnerships with countries in Latin America and Africa. The existing U.S.-led anti-IUU and Quad partnerships in the Indo-Pacific can serve as important models.
The Threats Posed by Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing
Beyond food and economic security and environmental impacts, new geopolitical and conflict threats associated with IUU fishing have emerged. In the fall, reports came out about an interaction during which a U.S. Coast Guard cutter encountered a Chinese fishing fleet off the coast of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands while patrolling for IUU fishing. When the Coast Guard attempted to board several of the ships to ensure they were following internationally accepted fishing practices, the Chinese vessels sped away with one turning aggressively toward the Coast Guard cutter, requiring the U.S. boat to take evasive action to avoid being rammed. This dangerous interaction was a hazardous deviation from international maritime protocol. Ultimately, the Coast Guard found possible violations on two of the vessels it was able to board and referred the matter to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, which includes China.
While China is not the sole perpetrator of global IUU fishing, it is increasingly becoming a major one. With dwindling fish stocks near its own shores, Chinese distant water fleets are fishing thousands of miles away from the Chinese mainland and using large processor/transport vessels to get their catch back to China. Estimates put the Chinese distant water fishing fleet at around 3,000 vessels, with nearly 500 fishing in the South Pacific, sometimes for months at a time. Of course, not all of what distant water Chinese fishing vessels are doing is illegal. Outwardly, China says it does not support IUU fishing and it has shown the ability to address specific issues when presented with overwhelming evidence of violations. However, it remains to be seen how much China will clamp down and proactively work on IUU fishing issues to ensure long-term viability of global fish stocks.
The Biden Administration’s Policy Framework
The past year saw the Biden administration put renewed emphasis on IUU fishing. In February, the White House released the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States. While IUU fishing was not a major theme, the strategy does recommend improving the Pacific Islands’ resilience and maritime security to safeguard fisheries. There was a clear focus on building partnerships in the region, increasing resilience, and supporting a rules-based order, which all tie back to the IUU fishing threat. However, with more than half the world’s population and 65% of its oceans in the Indo-Pacific region, it seemed odd that the strategy did not focus more on protecting and managing one of the region’s largest food sources and potential for significant civil unrest.
In June, the White House did offer a much more targeted and geographically unrestrained approach on IUU fishing when it released its Memorandum on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Associated Labor Abuses. This document put significant emphasis on the IUU threat from two dimensions: forced labor and human trafficking, and overfishing and fisheries collapse. The IUU memorandum directed multiple U.S. government departments and agencies to use a wide array of tools to address the problem. These included coordination with various foreign governments, the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and the G-7, to set tighter controls on fisheries management and to use bilateral maritime law enforcement agreements to enforce existing and future regulations.
Following Biden’s visit to Japan in May 2022, where he met with leaders of the Quad, the White House released a fact sheet recapping the Tokyo summit. This document focused on improving maritime domain awareness (MDA) between the Quad members by harnessing commercially available data, sharing more information, and pursuing future technologies. One of the goals of improved MDA is to protect fisheries essential to providing food security and income to people living across the Indo-Pacific region.
Improved MDA is critical to addressing the IUU fishing threat. Most countries have limited capability to see what is happening on the ocean’s surface more than several miles from their shores unless they have expensive aircraft or surface assets. Even then, such technology is only marginally helpful given the sheer size of the vast Indo-Pacific region. Leveraging increasingly less expensive space-based surveillance and better data sharing could greatly aid in MDA and subsequent surface action, helping countries to address the IUU threat and better manage their fish stocks.
Finally, the National Security Strategy in October discussed food insecurity as a major challenge, although not caused specifically by IUU fishing. The National Security Strategy did however mention illegal fishing as one of the challenges posed by transnational criminal organizations.
What Actions Need to be Taken in 2023 and Beyond
In 2023, the policy framework must be translated into increased and tangible action. With determined and focused U.S. leadership, regional partnerships need to double their efforts to address the problem. A more robust Quad IUU partnership in the Indo-Pacific is a good start, although there is much more that can and should be done. Building new, robust anti-IUU fishing partnerships in South America and Africa is urgent.
At the heart of the IUU fishing issue is the potential for millions of people to lose their primary source of food due to the collapse of global fish stocks. Many of these people live in developing countries. If this alone wasn’t significant enough, IUU fishing connects to forced labor, unsafe labor practices, social unrest, and contributes to transnational crime. As marine life knows no borders and IUU fishing perpetrators are highly mobile, often exploiting the vastness of the world’s oceans, this is truly a global problem. Firm commitment to enhanced partnerships, decisive leadership in supporting countries with limited resources, and dedicated response through enforcement action must be forthcoming to turn the tide on IUU fishing and sustain global fisheries. 2022 was the year of showing this through policy. 2023 needs to be the year of showing this through action.