In the past two years, the U.S. Coast Guard has made strong statements suggesting it would be increasing its effort to deter illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing activity. As it does so, the Coast Guard might also consider enhancing its role as a trainer of other nations.
IUU fishing occurs outside of careful resource management plans that ensure fish species can maintain healthy sustainable populations. In 2020, the Coast Guard called IUU fishing the “leading global maritime security threat” in its Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Strategic Outlook.
IUU fishing around the world has led to unsustainable overfishing. Like other natural resources, the importance of fisheries has far-ranging geopolitical ramifications, including impacting economic stability and food security for coastal nations. IUU has also been tied to international security concerns. The collapse of fisheries is one motivator for the rise of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia. Also, China's active use of its Maritime Militia has supported known and suspected Chinese fishing vessel encroachments on other nations' fisheries worldwide.
Like other natural resources, the importance of fisheries has far-ranging geopolitical ramifications.Share on Twitter
Fisheries management is not just important to maintain coastal economic stability, it is also a “soft” foreign policy tool to increase national and global geopolitical security. Effective fisheries management is composed of maritime domain awareness and enforcement capabilities, science to determine a sustainable fisheries harvest, and government regulations to support long-term healthy fish stocks. Historically, many nations have not had the resources needed to support the science or enforcement requirements for fisheries management, so any regulations developed were rendered ineffective.
Luckily, the tools available to monitor, measure, and respond to these problems have become much more effective, more widely available, and far cheaper to leverage over the past five years. The most notable change is the development of powerful, remote, low-cost, and publicly accessible maritime surveillance tools developed specifically with an eye on countering IUU. By combining satellite imagery, vessel tracking, vessel registry data, and radiofrequency data, organizations such as the nonprofit Global Fishing Watch have applied the power of big data analytics to help fisheries managers fight illegal fishing—and they have freely shared this information with the world.
Now instead of sending a helicopter or boat to do patrols of their fisheries management areas, managers can look online to see which vessels have been or currently are in their region. Those same vessels can be flagged for suspicious patterns that may indicate illegal fishing, transshipment of fish or forced labor at sea. This bird's-eye view targeting ensures that fisheries law enforcers are better informed, better able to manage resources, and are more effective. Potential illegal incursions or suspected domestic violations can be tracked and vessels boarded while at sea or inspected when they arrive back at port.
To ensure long-term fishery health, nations also may need science-backed management with enforceable government regulations and agreements.Share on Twitter
New surveillance capabilities are not the only tool needed to protect fisheries. To ensure long-term fishery health, nations also may need science-backed management with enforceable government regulations and agreements. Recent studies suggest that simply closing areas to fishing may provide a simple, long-term solution toward creating a sustainable fishery for many nations. In regions where governance and law enforcement are already a challenge, simple and easily enforceable laws can lead to better protection of resources.
The U.S. Coast Guard's Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Strategic Outlook Implementation Plan (PDF) explores ways to build partner nation capability, coordinate information sharing with partner stakeholders (including NGOs), and support U.S. foreign service elements such as the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. This implementation plan also includes the development of a five-day counter-IUU training course for partner nations.
Traditional U.S. fisheries law enforcement resources and techniques, such as using air patrols and complex management regulations, have made the U.S. model of fisheries law enforcement enviable but not easily replicable.
This is the first time in history that fisheries managers have had such game-changing tools at their disposal. As the U.S. Coast Guard begins to assess its international stance in the fight against IUU fishing, the most effective role for our Coast Guard could be as global trainer of other nations, focusing on simple and enforceable management plans supported by free, accessible maritime domain awareness tools. Teaching others to protect their own fish could be a step in the right direction in the fight against IUU fishing.
Kate Anania is a senior technical analyst at the RAND Corporation with expertise in coastal and fisheries management and environmental economics.
This commentary originally appeared on Homeland Security Today on February 24, 2022. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.