Defense Media Network

Off and Running: Coast Guard Operationalizes Strategy to Fight Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing

It was a voyage to less-frequented waters. From late December 2020 to early March 2021, the newest Coast Guard national security cutter, the Stone, spent 69 days in the Southern Atlantic, bolstering relationships with several Latin American partners: practicing an interdiction scenario with the Guyana Defense Force; conducting exercises with the Brazilian navy; and participating in professional exchanges with hosts in Uruguay.

The Stone’s maiden voyage, covering 18,250 nautical miles, was aimed specifically at countering illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing – a practice which, according to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, “has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat.”


Members from U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment 106 embarked aboard Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Tulsa (LCS 16) make their approach on an 11-meter rigid-hull inflatable boat to a foreign vessel during an Oceania Maritime Security Initiative (OMSI) boarding. The OMSI program is a Secretary of Defense program leveraging Department of Defense assets transiting the region to increase the Coast Guard’s maritime domain awareness, ultimately supporting its maritime law enforcement operations in Oceania. (U.S. Navy photo by Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Jake D. Sampson)

The Stone’s crew conducted no boardings of fishing vessels for inspection: In the South Atlantic, there is no legal framework for Coast Guard law enforcement teams to board and inspect vessels suspected of illegal fishing on the high seas. The crew also had minimal interaction with its counterparts from the country in the region with arguably the most to lose from IUU fishing: Argentina, home to one of the world’s richest squid fisheries, where, since 2018, hundreds of foreign fishing vessels, most of them from China, have spent nearly a million hours fishing right on the boundary of Argentina’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Many of these vessels have gone “dark” – turning off transponders that send Automatic Identification System data and tell everyone where they are – for extended periods of time, creating the suspicion that they’ve been masking illegal behavior.



According to Cmdr. James Binniker, chief of the Fisheries Enforcement Division in the Coast Guard’s Office of Law Enforcement Policy, not conducting law enforcement boardings did not prevent Stone’s maiden voyage from being a great success. Coast Guard presence along South America’s Atlantic coast was an important step in the fight against IUU fishing. The crew did what the Coast Guard does best when attacking a global problem: It strengthened existing relationships and built trust and capacity with its partners. The Stone was the first Coast Guard cutter to visit Uruguay in more than a decade.

“Our commandant often says, ‘presence equals influence,’” said Binniker. “The fact that Stone was there generated a great deal of public interest in those South American nations, among their governments, and within their maritime services.”


A small boat crew from the USCGC Stone (WMSL 758) drives alongside the Brazilian navy ship Guaiba off the coast of Northern Brazil on Jan. 4, 2021. The Stone and the Guaiba partnered together to share and practice law enforcement and rescue tactics as part of Operation Southern Cross. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class John Hightower)

The example of Argentina illustrates how complex the problem is: It doesn’t allow foreign vessels into its EEZ, and the Argentine navy has on several occasions chased and even captured foreign-flagged ships, most notably Chinese. But China has gradually become one of the nation’s most important trading partners, and the Argentine navy recently declared that no vessels had been detected illegally fishing in its EEZ. The Stone’s joint operations with neighboring states, however, did not go unnoticed in Argentina: Its media, and its public, raised questions about why leaders hadn’t done more to engage with the U.S. Coast Guard on the issue of IUU fishing. “We hope to do more with Argentina,” Binniker said. “But without even being there, without making a port call, we generated discussion of those issues.”

Stone’s patrol by all accounts was a success. According to Capt. Adam Morrison, Stone’s commanding officer for this maiden voyage, “This patrol reinvigorated partnerships with like-minded nations in an effort to curb illegal fishing practices. Furthermore, the collaboration with Global Fishing Watch continued the practice of translating maritime domain awareness information into effective Coast Guard patrol planning to shine a spotlight on the bad actors. Finally, the close coordination activities with South American naval services reaffirms that additional opportunities to learn and train with one another [are] an important factor in the way forward to counter illegal fishing.”


The issue has been clear for decades now: The world’s fish stocks are finite resources, overexploited in a way that threatens both the food supply and geopolitical security. The United Nations estimates that 93 percent of the world’s major ocean fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, or significantly depleted; 20 to 30 percent of the annual global catch is collected illegally, generating losses of more than $20 billion every year.

# Crewmembers aboard a small boat from the Ecuadorian naval vessel LAE Isla San Cristobal (LG 30) pull alongside the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf (WMSL 750) while conducting a joint patrol to detect and deter potential illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the vicinity of the Galapagos Islands, Aug. 28, 2020. From Aug. 25-29, Bertholf patrolled over 3,000 square nautical miles of Ecuadorian and international waters and conducted joint operations with the LAE Isla San Cristobal, providing persistent presence and surveillance of fishing activity throughout the region.

But the problem of IUU fishing is far from simple. Much of the unregulated and/or unreported global catch is caught by distant-water fishing (DWF) fleets that fish on an industrial scale in waters far from their home countries. Many of these fleets are heavily subsidized by their home governments, which can encourage unsustainable fishing practices. Illegal trans-shipment – moving catch from a fishing vessel to an accompanying transport vessel in order to hide where it came from – is common.

Five fishing fleets dominate DWF: China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Spain. Vessels from at least four of these nations have been observed going “dark” near the Argentine EEZ since 2018. Among these, China stands out: It accounts for 40 percent of global fishing and its DWF of 17,000 vessels dwarfs all others (the U.S. DWF fleet is between 250 and 300 vessels). China’s economic clout gives it advantages over other DWF nations: It has negotiated fishing permits in the EEZs of other nations, such as several West African coastal states, that have scant resources available for patrol and enforcement. Many DWF vessels are registered in other countries, flying “flags of convenience” that allow them to avoid international fisheries laws and agreements.



The overall effect of deliberate, systematic IUU fishing is destabilizing. Preying on vulnerable communities and nations invites the involvement of transnational criminal organizations that recruit poor fishers to engage in other illegal activity such as smuggling drugs, migrants, or weapons.

The U.S. Coast Guard, recognizing the fact that IUU fishing has become an issue whose implications go far beyond protecting natural resources, released a new “Strategic Outlook” document in September 2020. The 40-page document broadly lays out an approach to fighting IUU fishing along three “lines of effort”: targeted, intelligence-driven enforcement; countering predatory and irresponsible state behavior; and multilateral fisheries enforcement cooperation.


Guyana coast guard small boats patrol alongside the USCGC Stone (WMSL 758) off Guyana’s coast on Jan. 9, 2021. The U.S. and Guyana governments enacted a bilateral agreement on Sep. 18, 2020, to cooperatively combat illegal marine activity in Guyana’s waters. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class John Hightower)

None of these efforts is new to the Coast Guard or its partners, a growing list of both domestic and international allies. The Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement (SAFE) Act of 2019 created a 21-agency working group to coordinate a whole-of-government effort to combat IUU fishing. The group is chaired alternately by the Coast Guard, the Department of State, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which regulates fishing within the U.S. EEZ – where counter-IUU fishing has been a team sport from the beginning. In the Gulf of Mexico, for example, where commercial landings of red snapper have recently been valued at more than $26 million annually, “We work very closely with the state of Texas, CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection], and other DHS [Department of Homeland Security] components to monitor the border, including the maritime border,” said Binniker, “and then respond to foreign vessel incursion into our EEZ.”

In addition to the many multinational fisheries management organizations and conventions in which the Coast Guard already participates, the service has forged numerous bilateral partnerships – many of them among smaller nations, such as Pacific Island or West African states. “Usually that’s in the form of bringing shipriders on board Coast Guard cutters, or even U.S. Navy vessels with Coast Guard law enforcement detachments embarked,” Binniker said, “and helping them enforce their sovereignty and their domestic laws within their exclusive economic zones.”

The lines of effort mentioned in the Coast Guard’s counter-IUU fishing strategy don’t – and can’t – exist in isolation. To generate more targeted, intelligence-driven enforcement, the Coast Guard must expand on partnerships that supplement the capabilities of its own formidable intelligence branch. Partner nations help identify trends and targets in or near their EEZs, and other organizations – most notably Global Fishing Watch, an international nonprofit that increases maritime domain awareness by creating and sharing map visualizations, satellite data, and tools for analysis that enable research. Global Fishing Watch believes human activity at sea should be public knowledge, used to safeguard ocean resources for the common good.



The Coast Guard has been partnering with Global Fishing Watch for years, capitalizing on the organization’s data and analysis to inform the planning of patrols, particularly among its partners in the annual Operation North Pacific Guard (NPG). For more than 20 years, a collection of multilateral and bilateral partners in the region has conducted law enforcement operations targeting IUU fishing. Initially focused on high-seas driftnet fishing for salmon, the partners are now shifting their focus, with the help of GFW data and analysis, to include fleets that are fishing for multiple fish and squid species in the North Pacific.

Global Fishing Watch’s data and services became a potential tool for fighting IUU fishing in another region – Latin America and the Caribbean – in June 2021, when it entered an agreement with the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) to help detect, deter, and identify IUU fishing. The Coast Guard is a critical component of SOUTHCOM, leading and participating in joint law enforcement patrols in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of South America.

In August of last summer, when the national security cutter Bertholf was redeployed from its counter-drug patrol in the Eastern Pacific to a counter-IUU fishing patrol in the Galápagos Islands, the incident helped illustrate the current limits and gaps in enforcement authorities among the 17 treaty organizations that have been formed to manage high-seas fishing. Partners in these Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), many of which overlap, have each developed their own regulations for protecting valuable species. The 43 members of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), for example, agree to allow the countries in the pact to board and record any potential violations on their nationally flagged vessels. In February 2021, for example, the national security cutter Kimball conducted its first-ever at-sea boarding while patrolling the Philippine Sea.

USCGC Stone (WMSL 758) arrives to Montevideo, Uruguay, on Jan. 25, 2021. Stone was the first U.S. Coast Guard cutter to call in Uruguay in over a decade. Stone’s crew familiarized their hosts on the Coast Guard’s full range of mission and operations, answering technical questions and sharing best practices. Uruguay expressed further interest in additional professional exchange opportunities and joint operations in the future. (Photo courtesy U.S. Embassy Montevideo)

The Bertholf’s assistance was requested in August 2020 by Ecuador, which had noted with alarm, over a period of about four months, the gathering of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels in the area – 600 miles off the South American coast, in an area the size of Texas. Fishing is strictly limited within Ecuador’s Galápagos Marine Reserve, and ocean fishing beyond its EEZ is regulated by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), of which Ecuador, China, and the United States are all members. Unfortunately, the U.S./Ecuador joint patrol couldn’t board and inspect Chinese vessels in the area, because there is no boarding and inspection scheme yet under the SPRFMO, but the Bertholf’s presence sent the message that the Coast Guard and its partners support a more assertive rules-based order on the high seas.

At the last meeting of SPRFMO members, China blocked a U.S. proposal for implementing a high-seas boarding program – but according to Binniker, it may still be possible: “That convention, which has been in place since 2012, specifically says that if within two years – which we are certainly beyond now – the RFMO has not adopted a specific high-seas boarding inspection program, they will default to the 1995 United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement.” The boarding and inspection regime outlined by the U.N. has provided a model for RFMOs that have such a program.

The United States has notified the secretariat, along with China and the other SPRFMO states, that it’s looking to operationalize the U.N.’s boarding and inspection program. Before the end of the 2021 calendar year, Binniker said, “The United States Coast Guard could be doing high-seas boardings and inspections in that RFMO, where they’ve never been done before, and we’re pretty excited about that.”

Such authority would have allowed crews to disrupt and possibly expose any illegal activity near the Galápagos EEZ last summer. “We see that as a giant step forward toward bringing some accountability to that fleet,” said Binniker. Even with the ability to board and inspect, however, prospects for accountability may be limited: As their names suggest, the focus of RFMOs is on managing resources, rather than on busting lawbreakers. A boarding within an RFMO, Binniker said, “is more like an audit of the flag state, to see how they monitor and control their vessels to comply with the RFMO conservation and management measures – and it’s less of a targeted action against a specific vessel or operator.” When a boarding party finds violations, it notifies the RFMO secretariat, which notifies the flag state – and then it’s the flag state’s responsibility to investigate and report back to the RFMO what enforcement action was taken, if any, which may include fines, revocation of licenses, or other punishment for illegal fishers.

Ships from the U.S. Coast Guard and Japan Coast Guard conducted exercises near the Ogasawara Islands of Japan, Feb. 21, 2021. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Kimball and Japan Coast Guard Ship Akitsushima, two of the respective services’ newest and most capable vessels, operated alongside helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles to practice interdicting foreign vessels operating illegally inside Japanese waters. (U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of the Coast Guard Cutter Kimball/Released)

But it doesn’t always work out this way: During last year’s annual operations in the North Pacific – an area regulated by the North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NPFC), whose members include China and the United States – Coast Guard law enforcement teams found serious violations on board three Chinese vessels. “China reported back to the RFMO within a matter of weeks – prior to any of the vessels returning to ports,” said Binniker. “I don’t know how they could have done an investigation, but they reported back in the RFMO that U.S. Coast Guard was mistaken, and that there were no violations. And that’s one of the frustrating parts of our RFMOs. There are some limitations as to how effective our enforcement options can be.”

Operationalizing a boarding and inspection program within the SPRFMO and other convention areas would, at the very least, have a cost for China: Brazen defiance of its own agreements is a bad look, and exposing these violations can help generate influence and momentum for change.

This is the goal of all international efforts aimed at countering predatory and irresponsible state behaviors: to keep the pressure on bad actors to get with the rules-based program. The U.N.’s Port State Measures Agreement, for example, which went into effect in 2016 and has been signed by 69 countries – excluding, conspicuously, China – requires parties to place tighter controls on foreign-flagged vessels seeking to land or transship fish at their ports. Among other measures, the agreement gives national officials the right to deny any vessel access to domestic ports on the suspicion of wrongdoing, and to refuse services to vessels credibly accused of having participated in IUU fishing.

While these higher-level initiatives grow, the Coast Guard continues to expand its ability to fight IUU fishing globally. In early 2021, it stepped up efforts to form new bilateral and multilateral partnerships while building on existing ones. This has had noteworthy results in the Gulf and Caribbean: In February, the service donated two vessels to the Costa Rican coast guard; helped fund the repair of two others; and helped to finance the construction of a training and maintenance center.

Since the release of the Coast Guard’s strategy and its public call for new partnerships, Binniker said, the response has been overwhelming from nations seeking to engage and cooperate in counter-IUU fishing operations. “It’s been tremendous, responses have come from everywhere,” he said. “From Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica – even from the U.K. now that they’re not in the E.U. That’s another emerging relationship we’re exploring.”



One of the most recent calls for allies in the IUU fishing fight came from within a new partnership itself: On July 22, 2021, a team comprising the Coast Guard, NOAA, Global Fishing Watch, the Navy’s National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office, and the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) – a relatively new agency established to help the U.S. military make faster use of emerging commercial technologies – announced a competition, called the xView3 Challenge, seeking skilled software developers to compose algorithms that will harness satellite-based synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data to detect and characterize “dark” vessels that aren’t broadcasting their locations. The winning $150,000 prize, provided by DIU and Global Fishing Watch, will be awarded to the participants – U.S. or international individuals or companies – who produce the best-performing algorithms.

The winning algorithm will sort through publicly available data to identify behaviors often associated with IUU fishing. “Slow transit speed, for example, could suggest a vessel setting fishing gear. Rendezvous of vessels could suggest illegal transshipment, particularly if they don’t have an associated AIS [Automatic Identification System] signal, which suggests they might be turning it off so they can make an incursion into an area they’re not supposed to be,” Binniker said. “It’s a huge data set, and the DIU project will hopefully develop an algorithm to weed through all that and yield near-real-time targeting information – and that’s going to be publicly available, so we can help partners wherever there’s a need for better maritime domain awareness.”

Such a tool could provide a critical capability in places such as the Galápagos or the Argentine squid fishery, where going dark appears to be part of coordinated, systematic strategies to conceal illegal behavior. By leveraging existing technology to analyze publicly available data and inform the work of a growing worldwide alliance, the winning solution to the xView3 Challenge could help finally drag dark vessels into the light; it could, for example, help reveal what those 800 foreign fishing vessels – most of them Chinese, but also under South Korean, Spanish, or Taiwanese flags – have been doing on the boundary of Argentina’s EEZ.

“While China gets the lion’s share of the attention in this space, they certainly are not the only ones conducting IUU fishing,” said Binniker. “Our strategy is not a counter-China strategy. It’s a counter-IUU fishing strategy, wherever it takes place and whoever is engaged in the activity.”



Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...

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