Both illegal and legal fishing operations are simply pulling too many fish from the oceans, Coast Guard Deputy Commandant for Operations Vice Adm. Daniel Abel said Monday at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
“From a fish perspective, things aren’t looking so good,” Abel told the Second Annual Ocean Security Forum. From 1974-2015, the oceans have gone from 10 percent overfished to 30 percent overfished.
China by far is the nation with the largest of the distant water fleets — which doesn’t necessarily indicate illegal fishing, but indicates the motivation and means to travel wherever necessary around the globe to find the fish.
“Is it a nation-state action? Absolutely. Fishing has become an instrument of national power,” the admiral said.
As far as regions targeted by illegal fishing, “Why do countries go to these waters? Because they’ve got a unique combination. No. 1, large fish stocks that they’re chasing. No. 2, little or no capacity or capability or authorities for the host nation to enforce what’s going on in their near waters,” Abel said. “And for some of these countries, particularly in Oceania, this is an existential threat. All they have is protein and fishing around their waters. And if that is poached, then that’s all they have.”
The solution to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing rests in the intersection of military, law enforcement and regulation, he said. “That’s our secret sauce.”
And the Coast Guard is helping “big to little,” such as island hopping in Oceania with “a little bit of law enforcement, a little bit of fisheries, a little bit of search-and-rescue — that’s the type of thing we can do where the Navy cannot.”
In Africa, the Coast Guard rides on those nations’ ships to help them “learn how to board and how to hold people accountable within their own waters.” Within the Oceania Maritime Security Initiative, “this is where we use Navy as an Uber” as they look for potential violators and “leverage all the things we can within the national power.”
But “presence and authority can only get you so far” in curbing illegal fishing. “Awareness of where they might be — you need to be in the right ZIP code if you’re a cop,” Abel said, noting how USCG uses science such as salinity and water temperature to pinpoint where certain fish will be. “Next, you need to get the right street address with some imagery — either it’s on wing or up in space. Last, the on-scene presence that can take them down and then the authority through a governing body to board those vessels.”
About 20 percent of fishing is illegal, amounting to about $20 billion of illegal fishing per year.
“Our fishing is outstripping the stock,” Abel said. “Whether it’s legal or illegal, we’re catching too much of it.”
“Those countries that can least afford the loss of this fish are the ones that are losing the fish, the ones that can’t enforce the laws and their sovereignty,” he added. “And the buildup of authorities, capability, capacities is what you need to control the threat.”
The Coast Guard stands ready to assist as it “is doing its best to be more of a global presence.”
“Some of the same challenges in the fisheries world you’re seeing at the top of the world as well,” he said of polar security. “It’s an Arabian Peninsula for energy and a Panama Canal for transportation, all in the same waters that are ecologically sensitive. And it’s hard to get there if something goes wrong.”