Illegal fishing is a threat to international security as well as to the environment, notes an expert on surveillance technology, and high-tech tracking of illicit trawlers along with choking off supply chains is essential to reining in the threat.
Retired British Royal Navy Cdr. Peter Horn of the Pew Charitable Trusts, writing for the Maritime Foundation, said that “with as much as 26 million tons of seafood taken illegally from our seas each year – that’s one in every five fish sold – IUU fishing is more than just a danger to the environment.”
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, wrote the manager of the Ending Illegal Fishing project, is “a widespread, often highly organized, security threat that can limit the ability of nations to feed, employ and safeguard their citizens.”
“Up to $23.5 billion a year is potentially lost in the global market due to IUU fishing, robbing law-abiding fishers of their economic security and livelihoods,” he said. “Laws preventing IUU fishing and related crimes have little or no effect without robust governance, including proper implementation and enforcement. In other words, efforts to end illegal fishing should be designed and executed in a way that is integrated, comprehensive, and aligned with the views of all key players.”
“But while robust governance is necessary for a successful battle against IUU fishing, it is only one part of the solution. Success will also require the creation and implementation of international agreements and policies, cooperation among enforcement authorities, advanced technological solutions, engagement with the seafood industry, and, above all, strong leadership by policymakers and law enforcement officials, including a willingness to share information and resources to drive change.”
Interpol launched Project Scale in 2013 with the support of 190 countries to established an international alert system for suspects associated with fisheries crimes.
Separately, technology such as the Oversea Ocean Monitor facilitates integration of satellite tracking data and imagery data “with details about a vessel’s history, licences, ownership, risk index and more.”
The app uses algorithms “to identify patterns of fishing and generate alerts when suspicious activity – such as a vessel fishing inside a marine reserve or a known illegal operator demonstrating signs of fishing in a banned area – is detected.”
“Analysts can quickly share reliable information on suspected offenders with port officials and enforcement authorities, who in turn can stop the crime or confront the suspects when they come into port,” said Horn, who compared IUU fishing to “an arms race.”
“While new solutions are being deployed, unscrupulous operators are looking for novel ways to plunder from the world’s oceans. It is vital for everyone to take responsibility – governments, fisheries, international authorities and consumers all have an important role to play in curbing this destructive practice. Over the past few years, front-runners such as Chile and the United Kingdom have emerged, emphasizing the significance of marine protected areas, as well as the critical tools and technology that are necessary to monitor them.”
The United States, he said, “has also taken critical steps to engage the seafood industry and identify market levers that will help bring about effective change along the supply chain.”
“What’s most important is strong leadership across all these areas of work, accompanied by a willingness to share information and resources – that is what will win the battle against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,” Horn added.
The U.S. Coast Guard is tasked with ensuring illegal foreign fishing vessels don’t encroach on the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), as well as enforcing international agreements against IUU fishing.
In a November Center for Strategic & International Studies and National Geographic report, authors Gregory B. Poling and Conor Cronin called illegal fishing “a nontraditional security threat, and one that is underappreciated by most of the policy community in the United States and abroad.”
“IUU fishing supports, both directly and indirectly, nonstate actors engaged in organized crime, piracy, and armed insurgency and terrorism. It has become a part of the portfolio of illegal criminal organizations, thereby supporting both directly and indirectly their other illicit activities,” said the report, underscoring that “the connection between IUU fishing and human trafficking has been widely documented and, while reliable statistics are impossible to come by, the scale of the problem is clearly enormous.” This includes forced-labor crews kept out at sea for months in modern-day slavery.
Lanchas spotted by the Coast Guard near the U.S.-Mexico border in the Gulf of Mexico are sometimes not just hauling illegal fish but also narcotics.
Earlier this month, one of the 20-30 feet long Mexican fishing boats was intercepted illegally fishing in federal waters off southern Texas; five sharks and 94 red snapper fish were seized from the boat. The Coast Guard Sector/Air Station Corpus Christi has detected nearly four dozen lanchas north of the U.S.-Mexico Maritime Border since Sept. 1; 17 of the boats were interdicted.