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National Security Memorandum Outlines Interagency Plan to Combat Global Threat of Illegal Fishing

Memo comes as the Chinese government "has supported the rapid expansion of the scale and technological capacity of its distant-water fishing fleet."

President Biden issued a National Security Memorandum this week outlining steps to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing including focusing on forced labor in supply chains, broadening collaboration to increase global attention on IUU fishing challenges including distant-water fishing vessels, and limiting the market for products derived from IUU fishing or other unethical practices.

“Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and related harmful fishing practices are among the greatest threats to ocean health and are significant causes of global overfishing, contributing to the collapse or decline of fisheries that are critical to the economic growth, food systems, and ecosystems of numerous countries around the world,” the NSM states. “Distant water fishing vessels, which engage in industrial-scale fishing operations on the high seas and in waters under other states’ jurisdictions, can be significant perpetrators of IUU fishing and related harmful fishing practices.”

IUU fishing can “undermine U.S. economic competitiveness, national security, fishery sustainability, and the livelihoods and human rights of fishers around the world and will exacerbate the environmental and socioeconomic effects of climate change,” the memo added.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, one in five fish caught around the world is believed to have originated from IUU fishing. This comes as 93 percent of the world’s major marine fish stocks “are classified as fully exploited, overexploited, or significantly depleted.”

A report released this month by the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation said that “driven by the depletion of fish populations in its own national waters and its role as a key processing and exporting state,” the Chinese government “has supported the rapid expansion of the scale and technological capacity of its distant-water fishing fleet.” Research into this fleet “has unveiled the widespread, and harmful, economic, environmental and human consequences linked to overcapacity, high instances of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, destructive practises such as bottom trawling and the use of forced, bonded and slave labour and trafficked crew, alongside the widespread abuse of migrant crewmembers.”

China’s distant-water fleet has a “significant presence within countries in the Global South, where some fish populations are over-exploited to the detriment of coastal communities who rely heavily on healthy marine ecosystems,” the report notes. “…The size of the fleet, coupled with the high instances of suspected IUU fishing, threatens continued socio-economic stability and inflicts ecological harm globally.”

The U.S. Interagency Working Group on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing, a collaboration of 21 federal agencies, is expected to release its National Five-Year Strategy for Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing (2022-2026) by the end of July. NOAA will also issue a proposed rule to strengthen the criteria under which the agency can label a country as engaging in IUU fishing activities.

The United States, UK, and Canada are also launching an IUU Fishing Action Alliance to help improve the monitoring, control, and surveillance of fisheries and build necessary partnerships.

A senior administration official told reporters Monday that the National Security Memorandum “directs departments and agencies with a variety of engagement strategies, from increased coordination with diverse stakeholders from public and private and foreign and domestic, to address the challenges in a comprehensive, all-of-government way.”

The Department of Homeland Security is directed, through U.S. Customs and Border Protection in coordination with NOAA, to “investigate fishing vessels and operators suspected to be harvesting seafood with forced labor and issue withhold release orders, as appropriate,” the NSM states, “share evidence with allies and partners to encourage parallel customs enforcement actions,” “investigate prospective civil penalty cases against importers connected to previously issued fishing vessel withhold release orders,” “prevent the importation of seafood harvested with forced labor into the United States,” and “use Maritime Operational Threat Response processes to facilitate interagency notifications, responses, and legal enforcement actions for IUU fishing offenses.”

The NOAA administrator is directed to work with DHS and the U.S. Coast Guard to “engage with regional fisheries management organizations to encourage adoption of measures that identify and counter IUU fishing, including high seas boarding inspection schemes.” DHS will also be involved in an interagency effort “to work to counter harmful fishing practices in West Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Indo-Pacific” through training, information-sharing, intelligence and more.

When asked whether China and its activities were in mind when crafting the memo, the official said the NSM “is not about any one specific country.”

“The PRC is a leading contributor to IUU fishing worldwide, and it has impeded progress on the development of measures to combat IUU fishing and overfishing in international organizations,” the official said. “And the PRC has a responsibility to uphold these commitments as a flag state and actively monitor and correct the activities of fishing fleet activities in other countries’ waters — of its fleet fishing activities in other countries’ waters, including preventing its vessels from fishing outside coastal states’ license agreements or without a license to fish at all.”

The administration said it is working closely with Congress on implementation of the memorandum and ensuring the efforts are adequately resourced.

During his final State of the Coast Guard Address in February, Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz cited the counter-narcotics success of interagency training and collaboration and suggested that “perhaps a joint-interagency framework to counter Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing could yield similar successes — the United States Coast Guard looks forward to contributing a leadership role toward such ends.”

“Our efforts to help counter IUU Fishing behaviors have created new avenues to collaborate and share best practices of Coast Guard work,” he added.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, anti-Semitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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