In late July of 2020, when the Ecuadorian Navy discovered a fleet of more than 200 Chinese-flagged fishing vessels in the waters just outside the Galápagos Marine Reserve, it was the beginning of a puzzling episode on the high seas – but it was also the escalation of a trend, as the size and reach of the world’s distant water fishing (DWF) fleets have increased dramatically over the past several years. In 2015, there were virtually no Chinese fishing vessels inside or near the 200-mile boundary of the archipelago’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In 2017, when a Chinese-flagged vessel was caught inside the Galápagos EEZ with an illegal catch of about 3,000 tons of rare, endangered, or near-extinct species, the number of Chinese vessels in the area peaked at 263.
For four months in 2020, there were more than 200 Chinese vessels fishing in the area, with a peak of 364 in August. Simply keeping track of these vessels, in an area larger than Texas, 600 miles off the South American coast, proved such a challenge that Ecuador requested assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard. The National Security Cutter Bertholf, which was in the Eastern Pacific conducting counter-drug patrols for the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), was redeployed to the Galápagos. From Aug. 25 to 29, Bertholf joined an Ecuadorian naval vessel in patrolling more than 3,000 square miles of Ecuadorian and international waters.
There is nothing inherently illegal about distant-water fishing – fishing outside a vessel’s territorial waters, either on the high seas or, under permit, within another nation’s EEZ. High-seas fishing is managed internationally by signatories to 17 treaty organizations known as Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, or RFMOs, some of which overlap – and each of which has its own set of agreed-upon regulations for protecting commercially valuable species.
The Galápagos Marine Reserve is one of the world’s most heavily protected nature reserves, with strict limits on fishing within its waters. Ocean fishing beyond its 200- mile boundary is regulated by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), of which the United States, China, and Ecuador are members. According to Capt. Tim Brown, chief of the Coast Guard’s Office of Law Enforcement, the lack of at-sea boarding authorities in SPRFMO limited the Coast Guard and Ecuadorian navy’s ability to get onboard to determine exactly what activities the vessels were engaged in.
“There unfortunately isn’t a high-seas boarding and inspection scheme in that part of the Eastern Pacific, so we didn’t have the authority to board any of the vessels that we sighted,” he said. “We didn’t find any smoking guns while on patrol in those few days off Ecuador. But I think our presence made a difference, in terms of sending the message that we’re going to work closely with our partners to ensure mutual protection of those natural resources.” After further investigation, it was later determined that six of the vessels encountered on the patrol – both active fishing vessels and others that support fishing operations – not all of them Chinese-flagged – were not permitted in SPRFMO-regulated waters. The government of Ecuador has recommended these six vessels be added to the organization’s list of ships conducting illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
IUU fishing is a term that’s been used for years to describe a collection of dishonest fishing practices, both on the high seas and within national jurisdictions. Distant-water vessels often buy permits to fish within the EEZs of small, sometimes cash-strapped coastal nations. Many permitting nations have few resources to monitor and enforce compliance, which is one of many loopholes that exist in the global fight against IUU fishing.
The Chinese vessel interdicted in 2017, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, was a smoking gun that provided clear evidence of illegal fishing: Trespassing inside the Galápagos Marine Reserve, it wasn’t a fishing boat; it was a refrigerated cargo vessel carrying, among other things, 300 tons of shark, including at least one protected species. It had clearly been engaged in transshipment, or the transfer of catch at sea, a practice that may be authorized under certain RFMOs to allow fishing vessels to remain at sea – but may also be used to obscure the source of the catch and to mix legal and illegal fish. The Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 wasn’t authorized to transship, and it was unclear where its illegal cargo had been caught, or by whom.
I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER
Monitoring and enforcing IUU fishing requires the ability to track vessels and follow the catch, and while there was no smoking gun outside the Galápagos Marine Reserve in August, there was plenty of smoke – and that may have been the point of having so many fishing vessels there at once. Several groups, including the nonprofits Global Fishing Watch, Oceana, and the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), have taken a deep dive into the available data, including trade and catch numbers and tracking data from Automatic Identification System (AIS) signatures of vessels in the area.
The Chinese fleet is not permitted to fish inside Ecuador’s EEZ, and throughout the summer, each of the hundreds of Chinese-flagged vessels appeared to be operating outside the Galápagos Marine Reserve. At the peak of the fishing season, however, between mid-July and mid-August, Chinese vessels near the Galápagos deactivated their AIS on 43 separate occasions, going “dark” – an illegal practice, if done intentionally – for an average of two days at a time. One vessel went dark for 17 days. Identifying data sent by ships throughout the summer seemed designed to create confusion about their intent and activity, with vessels changing their registered lengths and drafts apparently at random. Some of the vessels had known histories of illegal fishing. Of the 1,135 vessels registered to operate in the SPRFMO convention area, 62 percent are flagged to China. The next largest fleet, from Panama, has 127 registered vessels – several of which are owned and operated by Chinese companies. Many commercial vessels fly “flags of convenience” such as this, in order to avoid the stricter marine regulations imposed by their own countries.
The CIMSEC report concluded that while it was still impossible to say for sure what these Chinese vessels were doing, the fact that they accounted for as many as364 vessels in a total of 554 in the area was suspicious.“By concentrating so many vessels outside the exclusive economic zone, with AIS on,” the report said, “the approach may be to distract from any ‘dark’ incursions into the Galápagos’ waters or to hide the transshipments with other vessels in plain sight.” After being caught red-handed in 2017, in other words, illegal operators in China’s distant-water fleet may have been adapting to muddy the waters and conceal their activities from view.
“Every nation has the right to fish,” said Vice Adm. Scott Buschman, the Coast Guard’s deputy commandant for operations, “and we want to encourage the free flow of legal commerce. However, IUU fishing operations often take advantage of corruption, hide behind front companies, and mask their beneficial ownership. The overwhelming challenge with IUU fishing is finding the illegal operators amongst the legal fishers.”
THE PROBLEM WITH IUU FISHING
The Galápagos incident is a good illustration of this overwhelming challenge – but it’s just one example in a growing global competition for ocean resources amid record demand for seafood. It’s easy to single out China: It is the world’s largest fishing nation by far, with a distant-water fleet estimated to be up to 17,000 vessels (compared to 250-300 for both the European Union and the United States). China accounts for about 40 percent of global fishing, and it is, according to the IUU Fishing Index compiled by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, the world’s worst IUU fishing offender.
But it’s important to note that a large number of fishing vessels alone is not an indication of illegal activity. Additionally, the Coast Guard has for decades operated jointly with the Chinese government to curb IUU fishing. Operation North Pacific Guard, an annual joint enforcement effort by Pacific Rim nations that targets illegal fishing in an area encompassing more than 3 million square miles, has successfully diminished the threat of high seas driftnet fishing in the North Pacific Ocean. “China does have the largest distant-water fleet in the world,” Brown said. “We know that. That’s a fact. So because of that, there is going to be some illegal fishing within their fleet.”
IUU fishing, for years considered in terms of threats to natural resources, is now a problem much bigger than China, and when the Coast Guard released, in September of 2020, a new Strategic Outlook document outlining an approach to combat IUU fishing, it sent the clear signal that it considered it a problem much bigger than fishing itself. At a public forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. in mid-September, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. KarlSchultz discussed the new Strategic Outlook. “This is about sovereign nations,” Schultz said, “and protecting their GDP; protecting their livelihoods.” IUU fishing, saidSchultz, had replaced piracy as the leading threat to global maritime security.
According to the United Nations’ Food and AgricultureOrganization, 93 percent of the world’s major ocean fish stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited, or significantly depleted. Up to 27 million tons of fish – 20 to 30 percent of the total global catch – are caught illegally every year, distorting markets and leading to losses estimated at more than $20 billion per year.
“As a nation, and a global community, we are recognizing that IUU fishing presents much more than a threat to natural resource conservation,” said Buschman. “IUU fishing challenges a nation’s ability to achieve its own domestic food security, threatens global geopolitical security, erodes U.S. competitiveness in global markets, and ultimately undermines our collective maritime governance.”
THE IUU STRATEGIC OUTLOOK AND THE FUTURE OF MULTILATERAL ENFORCEMENT
The 40-page IUU Strategic Outlook is a broad outline of how the Coast Guard envisions leveraging its existing authorities, capabilities, and working relationships to become a global leader in the fight against IUU fishing. It aims for a vigorous pursuit of three “lines of effort,” each of which the Coast Guard and its partners are already pursuing, but the Strategic Outlook looks to expand these efforts to become global in scope:
1. Promoting Targeted, Effective, Intelligence-DrivenEnforcement Operations. A fuller picture of what happened in Galápagos-adjacent waters in 2020 was developed after the fishing season was over, when Global Fishing Watch and other organizations fed the available data into algorithms.Obviously, knowing more about these vessels in advance would have enabled Ecuador and its partners to identify and monitor vessels of interest.
As an example of what the Coast Guard hopes to achieve in a global fight against IUU fishing, Buschman offers the analogy of Operation North Pacific Guard, which was established 25 years ago with an initial focus on countering the destructive and indiscriminate practice of high-seas drift-net fishing. The annual patrol is actually a proactive year-round effort at upholding international maritime governance – by knowing as much as possible about who’s in the North Pacific, what they’re doing, with whom they’re interacting, and where they’re headed. For Operation North Pacific Guard 2020, the United States and its Pacific Rim partners relied in part on intelligence gathered by Global Fishing Watch, which provided information on suspicious seafood transshipments and vessel tracking systems that appeared to be “spoofed” – intentionally manipulated to report false information. Investigations of these reports helped to identify numerous vessels of interest. Using intelligence provided by multilateral partners, the Coast Guard cutter Douglas Munro conducted at-sea boarding of 11 fishing vessels from four different nations.
A similar approach has worked well in the Joint Interagency Task Forces (JIATFs) that combat drug-related transnational organized crime. Both JIATF-West, part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and JIATF-South, in the U.S. Southern Command, are military task forces, commanded by Coast Guard flag officers, that include both federal and international partners. “I can tell you from many years of experience,” said Buschman, “the JIATF model is highly effective in bringing together a wide variety of agencies, experts, and foreign partners to analyze and share intelligence, and coordinate detection and monitoring that directly supports interdiction operations. With the increasing U.S. Government focus on IUU fishing, and the large number of agencies expending resources to understand and combat the threat, I envision that a coordinating body to ensure our efforts are synchronized and efficient would be useful. Such a body would likely be virtual, certainly in the beginning; however, one of the lessons learned throughout the COVID pandemic is how to better plan and execute global operations in a virtual posture.”
As Buschman points out, there is already a considerable amount of information being gathered around the world by both government agencies and private organizations such as Global Fishing Watch. “Through the execution of this Strategic Outlook and the partnerships we will build,” he said, “we will raise our collective awareness of not just the threats in the maritime domain, but also all of the complementary efforts to stop it.”
2. Countering Predatory and Irresponsible State Behavior. In October of 2020, White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien announced that the Coast Guard would be increasing its presence in the Western Pacific, sending two Fast Response Cutters (FRCs) to Apra Harbor, Guam, in support of Operation Aiga, an effort to strengthen maritime domain awareness and sovereignty for island nations in Oceania. The move was also announced as a means of countering Chinese IUU fishing and the harassment of other vessels fishing in their own Indo-Pacific EEZs – territorial seas that, particularly in the South China Sea, are disputed. The past few years have seen several confrontations in the region, including, in the spring of last year, a swarm of at least 275 Chinese fishing boats gathering around Thitu Island, which is claimed by the Philippines.
Few IUU fishing violations are as dramatic. Most often, an illegal fisher is trying not to be noticed – which may be why so few outside the fisheries enforcement community appreciate the scope of the problem. “When we begin to analyze these incidences in aggregate,” Buschman said,“we see patterns of blatant disregard for conservation and management regulations, we see flag states failing to hold their vessels accountable for complying with maritime governance structures, and we see vulnerable coastal states being robbed of vital economic resources.”
On-the-water presence and collaboration with sovereign partners is one approach to countering predatory and irresponsible behavior, but Brown believes the Coast Guard also has a big-picture role to play, in fact-finding and publicizing behaviors that adhere to the letter, but not the spirit, of an international rules-based scheme for preserving natural resources. “I think when we go to some spots around the world and highlight what’s really going on,” he said, “the reality is that it’s not what people thought was going on. … How does a distant water fleet get to fish off West Africa? Well, it’s buying fishing rights to partner EEZs – Ghana or Senegal or some other nation that might sell its fishing rights. And what are they really selling? What are they getting out of that? And does it turn out exactly as they planned?”
In areas where subsistence fishermen have been operating for generations, the depletion of these resources can lead to crime, piracy, or other threats to the national security of vulnerable nations. “If we can at least go to these places and show some enforcement presence, and bring our partners along and teach them or empower them to do their own enforcement when we leave, we’ll be shining a light on those activities to reveal problems – and that could lead to solutions.”
3. Expanding Multilateral Fisheries Enforcement Cooperation. As Buschman points out, the effectiveness of efforts such as Operation North Pacific Guard and the Joint Interagency Task Forces is largely due to the fact that they involve sharing information, intelligence, capabilities, and assets of both federal and international partners. To get the U.S. government to speak with one voice on the subject of IUU fishing, Congress enacted the Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement (SAFE) Act in December of 2019 to assemble a 21-agency working group to integrate the U.S. response to IUU fishing globally. The working group recently established a sub-working group, led by the National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office, to assess current intelligence, detection, and monitoring efforts across the U.S. government and make recommendations for how to better align these efforts.
The JIATFs and Operation North Pacific Guard share another distinguishing factor: They have teeth. Vessels suspected of lawbreaking can be boarded and inspected, and violators can be arrested and prosecuted. This isn’t really the purpose of an RFMO, Brown pointed out; as their names imply, they are focused on managing commercially valuable marine resources, they are not solely focused on enforcement. It’s unlikely, said Brown, that enforcement authorities are going to arise from within RFMOs – but they may well be instrumental in helping to inform whatever enforcement agreements ultimately result from the Coast Guard’s Strategic Outlook. “I think in the future,” Brown said, “those high-seas boarding and inspection procedures will be in place, and we – and Ecuador and other like-minded nations – will be able to go out and confirm that the activity we know to be authorized in the high seas is really what’s going on in the high seas.”
The Coast Guard’s new IUU Strategic Outlook contains several references to transparency and “shining light” on illegal practices, revealing a focus on openness and honesty – agreeing on how certain parts of the world are going to be fished, and being honest about what is caught and how it’s brought to shore and made sustainable.
“Our ideal end state,” said Buschman, “is one where sovereign nations – developing nations in particular –are able to benefit from their own economic resources; where honest, law-abiding fishers do not have to compete in the marketplace with others who have not borne the cost of compliance; and fishing nations act responsibly to exercise appropriate control over their fleets and require them to uphold international norms.”
This interview originally appears in Coast Guard OUTLOOK 2020-2021 Edition.