Aerial photo taken on November 3, 2020 shows fishing boats to be dismantled by Hongze Lake after a fishing ban was imposed in the area to protect resources, in Huaian in eastern China's Jiangsu province.

Aerial photo taken on November 3, 2020 shows fishing boats to be dismantled by Hongze Lake after a fishing ban was imposed in the area to protect resources, in Huaian in eastern China's Jiangsu province. Getty Images

Illegal Fishing Is a National Security Problem

The stability of countries and regions are threatened by the declining health of fish stocks, and by the groups and governments that run lawless fishing fleets.

According to UN estimates, 90 percent of global fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted, meaning that fish are being caught faster than they can reproduce. As global demand for fish continues to draw from an already dwindling supply, recent reports demonstrate that nearly a third of ocean fishing is illegal, unregulated, or unreported, which has devastating effects on global fish stocks and long-term economic ramifications for coastal nations. The UN estimates that one in ten people worldwide rely on fishing or aquaculture for their livelihoods – a collapse of worldwide fisheries would be disastrous to them and the estimated three billion people who rely on seafood as their primary source of protein. But combating illegal, unregulated and unreported, or IUU, fishing isn’t just about saving fish, it’s also a security issue. Chinese fishing fleets have been a trojan horse for the de facto seizure of territories in the South China Sea and have engaged in “systemic violati[ons] of sovereign nation rights” off the coast of Latin America and Africa. As the Biden administration sets its national security priorities, it should include combating IUU fishing among them.

China is the largest contributor to IUU fishing worldwide and poses a geopolitical threat to economic stability in the Indo-Pacific and abroad. As Chinese fleets deplete fisheries in Northeast Asia and the South China Sea, they venture further afield in search of fresh fish stocks and ultimately infringe on the exclusive economic zones of coastal countries around the world. While Beijing officially acknowledges a distant-waters fishing fleet of 2,500 vessels, independent researchers estimate it could be as large as 17,000 vessels. Smaller African nations such as Ghana are a primary target for the large Chinese fleets because they have weak maritime law enforcement abilities and lack the resources to adequately defend against these incursions. In some cases, vulnerable countries like Gambia have turned to non-governmental organizations like Sea Shepherd to help them police their fisheries against Chinese exploitation. But despite some success, these organizations are simply too small to effectively combat IUU fishing at scale.

In Latin America, U.S. Southern Command has repeatedly noted the importance of addressing IUU fishing for countries in the region. IUU fishing consistently ranks among the top three priorities for navies and coast guards in the region alongside better-known threats like terrorism and narcotics trafficking. In 2016, the Argentinian coast guard sank a non-compliant Chinese fishing vessel as it was fleeing toward international waters after fishing illegally. In 2020, U.S. and Ecuadorian authorities accused a fleet of over 300 mostly Chinese fishing vessels of illegally fishing off the coast of the Galapagos. Chinese fishing fleets have also demonstrated their willingness to fish illegally inside other protected maritime sanctuaries in Latin America. The United States should leverage its mutual interest with Latin American nations to better combat IUU fishing through intelligence sharing, ship-rider agreements where foreign law enforcement can deploy with U.S. partners on U.S. vessels for training purposes, and by orienting long standing, joint military exercises like Tradewinds and RIMPAC on countering IUU fishing.

Traditionalists at the Pentagon will be quick to ask why the military should help combat IUU fishing. But they need look no further than the South China Sea, where Beijing is increasingly using its fishing fleets as vehicles to seize control of disputed territories. Most recently, despite international protest, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels were previously anchored at Whitsun Reef and are now moving to Union Banks, two atolls in the Spratly Islands which are both disputed territories claimed by the Philippines and China. Among this fleet are vessels under the control of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, a paramilitary wing of the Chinese military sometimes called the “little blue men,” the nautical equivalent of the “little green men” used by Russia in Crimea. Illegal fishing is not only an ecological and economic threat, but it is increasingly a way for China to exert effective control over contested areas short of overt military action.

There are signs that the United States is starting to pay attention to the geopolitical threat of IUU fishing. The passage of the Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement (SAFE) Act at the end of 2019 was a good start. The Coast Guard released an IUU Fishing Strategic Outlook in 2020 and sent a vessel to the South Atlantic to help counter illegal fishing there. In the fight against IUU fishing, one of the most important capabilities that the United States can offer to allies and partners is maritime surveillance and domain awareness. While the United States should not be involved in directly policing the waters of sovereign states, it can help with detection and monitoring of suspicious and illicit vessels and pass intelligence to regional authorities or international law enforcement agencies. The United States can also do more to provide training for international law enforcement agencies in maritime policing, vessel boarding, search and seizure procedures, and by focusing joint exercises on combating IUU fishing. 

IUU fishing is a complicated security issue that lies at the intersection of strategic competition with Beijing, environmental policy, and economic security for millions of people. The challenges are not just about fish and not just about China. IUU fishing is also a vehicle for transnational organized crime and is connected to issues such as slavery and forced labor, human trafficking, smuggling, money laundering and tax evasion. The United States is already committed to addressing these issues, and the Biden administration should add illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing to its list of national security priorities. By using tools like intelligence sharing, training, and free-rider law enforcement agreements, the United States can help combat IUU fishing and help ensure regional security alongside allies and partners. 

Walker D. Mills is a United States Marine Corps officer serving as an exchange officer in Cartagena, Colombia and is the 2021 Military Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. The views expressed are his alone and do not represent the United States government, the Colombian government, the United States military, or the United States Marine Corps.