Capacity to expand the U.S. Coast Guard’s global reach is a key challenge in combating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the assistant commandant for response policy said.
“Being able to combat this at sea is predicated on your ability to be present, and so presence is through ships properly equipped, properly trained and aircraft properly equipped to surveil,” Rear Adm. Doug Fears told Sea-Air-Space 2020, which was held in a virtual format this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Fishermen illegally harvesting catches “exploit the maritime governance of other countries, and so it’s an issue of sovereignty and national security because the competition for global fish stock and protein is ongoing.”
“And so the Coast Guard’s role in this is as a participant, one of several in the U.S. government, that engages internationally,” he said. “And why we’ve been effective as an organization in this engagement is that we’re, one, a trusted partner, we’re very supportive of an international rules-based governance structure that benefits each sovereign country that has an exclusive economic zone.”
“…It is a national security issue and each sovereign nation exercises its own sovereignty over its exclusive economic zone. When another nation violates that by catching fish without permits, by overcatching fish, by catching the wrong species or catching fish that are too small, ultimately we’re harming the fish stock in a way that may not be recoverable.”
Fears noted “very aggressive behavior taking place by some nations that are engaged in IUU fishing,” such as China violating the rights of Indonesian sovereignty. The South China Sea is “one place where there are multiple claims to in terms of sovereignty that fishing goes unenforced.”
Dave Hogan, acting director in the Office of Marine Conservation at the State Department, said China has been asked “to do better and to do more.”
“We have worked at the international level, the global level to establish a common definition of IUU,” Hogan said. “It really does rely, though, on the rules that have been established. And so the general approach is any fishing that’s not in compliance with the rules, the international rules to manage fisheries, the rules of any country with regard to areas under their jurisdictions and the rules established for their vessels and their nationals, any violation of those rules, any failure to report those rules or an absence of governance where there should be some — those all essentially comprise IUU fishing and that is an internationally accepted standard.”
Hogan noted that “you see IUU fishing across the board in every basin and almost all fisheries to some degree.”
“We’ve seen not only vessels of other countries but stateless vessels, and the Coast Guard has done a very good job of catching stateless vessels in the north Pacific,” he said, adding that the problem “is dynamic depending on the economic situation of the fleets and that’s one of the reasons why we’re also attempting to address other factors that affect IUU fishing, to reduce the economic incentives and the conditions that foster it.”
Fears said that the Coast Guard “has the authorities, the capability, the global reach, we’re trusted partners, our model of coast guarding, if you will, is a very respected model, I think, around the globe.”
“And so we can, in partnership with other like-minded countries, have a governance system that’s rules-based and that we can enforce in. And so our limiting factor in this is capacity. While we operate around the world we can’t operate in all the places that probably deserve the attention in IUU fishing,” the admiral said.
The U.S. routinely engages partner countries “through bilateral talks, multilateral talks, we’ll send training teams around to help other navies and coast guards be able to enforce more effectively.”
“The United States Coast Guard is an international model for enforcing laws and observing rules-based governance around the globe,” Fears continued. “And there are other competing coast guards – I guess I would point to the fact that most international coast guards have a racing stripe on the hull of their ship. I suspect they’ve taken that from the United States Coast Guard; even though they’re in different forms it’s an outward symbol of law enforcement and good governance. Some of the countries that I think take advantage of that kind of trust are countries like China.”
Fears emphasized that “the amount of fish stock and biomass in the world is finite.”
“And when it’s overfished or not properly managed or you’re catching things that aren’t mature yet and you’re harvesting from a sea in kind of a meat-fisted way, just scraping everything up from the bottom of the ocean, we’re destroying the ecosystem … and so as the global competition for protein continues I see this becoming a more serious problem for all sovereign countries that have a maritime boundary,” he said.