In a New Initiative, the U.S. Coast Guard Targets Illegal Fishing


After a long absence, fish and fish­ery patrols are back as a U.S. Coast Guard pri­or­i­ty. In a little-noticed event ear­li­er this month, the U.S. Coast Guard announced a new focus on “Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing,” sketch­ing out a broad plan to track and, in time, start rolling back the sys­temic — and often State-based — depre­da­tion of seas world­wide.

While the announcement was craft­ed to reflect a mere status-ori­ent­ed “Outlook” on the scourge of ille­gal, unre­port­ed and unreg­u­lat­ed fish­ing, the roll­out at the U.S. Coast Guard head­quar­ters in Washington had all the trap­pings of a fully com­mit­ted, “all-of-gov­ern­ment” strat­e­gy. Flanked by Admiral Craig S. Faller, head of Southern Command, Tim Gallaudet, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Dr. Benjamin Purser, a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the State Department, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Karl L. Schultz, put rogue fish­ing fleets on notice. 

The “Outlook” itself her­alds anoth­er fore­sight­ed Coast Guard effort to focus atten­tion on com­plex but easily-ignored mar­itime chal­lenges. To mar­itime observers, the pat­tern, by now, should be famil­iar, as the U.S. Coast Guard is using the same suc­cess­ful tem­plate it used to raise aware­ness of emerg­ing nation­al secu­ri­ty issues in the Arctic and the Western Hemisphere. In essence, the Coast Guard, through its latest “Outlook,” is affirm­ing that large-scale eco­nom­ic encroach­ment at sea and other resource-extrac­tion activ­i­ties incon­sis­tent with inter­na­tion­al norms is a desta­bi­liz­ing influ­ence that needs to be con­trolled. It is sig­nal­ing that Coast Guard resources will begin putting their “arms around” the prob­lem. But rather than try to do it all, America’s racing-stripe Navy has set out a com­pelling case for any inter­est­ed party — both inside and out­side of the U.S. gov­ern­ment— to join the fight against ille­gal fish­ing.

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The change in focus will be pop­u­lar with America’s friends. Many of the Coast Guard’s inter­na­tion­al part­ners are already deeply con­cerned about fish­ery exploita­tion. It is right in the Coast Guard wheel­house. As one vul­ner­a­ble coun­try after anoth­er is tar­get­ed for sys­temic, often state-sup­port­ed fish­eries depre­da­tion, des­per­ate local fish­ers, deprived of their normal liveli­hood, have little choice but to try their hand at piracy or drug and human traf­fick­ing. Widespread accep­tance of crim­i­nal behav­ior fur­ther desta­bi­lizes the host coun­try, caus­ing prob­lems for neigh­bor­ing mar­itime law enforce­ment agen­cies, that can, in turn, spark big geopo­lit­i­cal crises.

The Coast Guard intu­itive­ly under­stands that the loss of sus­tain­able pro­tein resources drives geopo­lit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty, rein­forc­ing illic­it behav­iors that China and other rivals rely upon to expand their global influ­ence. And rather than wait for guid­ance, America’s Coast Guard is qui­et­ly paving the way for other part­ners to join in, ensur­ing fair play at sea.

Fishery Enforcement Gets A Makeover

To focus on fish, the Coast Guard is not simply moving away from drug inter­dic­tion. Instead, the Coast Guard is taking the tools and tech­niques it devel­oped to inter­dict drugs at sea to better engage dis­persed fish­ing fleets. Information fusion and new multi-mis­sion blue-water plat­forms now let the Coast Guard switch mis­sions on the fly, while “tar­get­ed, effec­tive, intel­li­gence-driven enforce­ment actions,” max­i­mizes the effi­cien­cy of at-sea inter­dic­tion forces, dis­patch­ing the ves­sels towards poten­tial vio­la­tors. While the process is still com­plex and a bit unwieldy, most U.S. Coast Guard ves­sels oper­at­ing in the open ocean are now equipped to accept and process sen­si­tive tar­get­ing infor­ma­tion and can quick­ly be direct­ed towards sus­pect ves­sels with the high­est like­li­hood of a suc­cess­ful inter­cept. 

For the Coast Guard, a new focus on fish­ing will be a bit of a change. It has been over forty years since the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 drove the Coast Guard to really look hard at ille­gal fish­ing. Back then, the U.S. Coast Guard had to make an enor­mous invest­ment to enforce fish­ing reg­u­la­tions 200 miles from the U.S. shore­line. In the late sev­en­ties, the Coast Guard’s 18 big Atlantic-based cut­ters spent, on aver­age, nine weeks of the year on fish­ery patrols. The Pacific fish­eries demand­ed even more resources. Overhead, Coast Guard air­craft logged 10,000 hours a year on fish­eries sur­veil­lance. Whole cutter class­es were designed with a focus on enforc­ing fish­ery reg­u­la­tions. With no abil­i­ty to mon­i­tor the sea, was a grind­ing job for Coast Guard cut­ters to find fish­ing ves­sels, board them, and then look for poten­tial vio­la­tions. 

Maritime intel­li­gence was lack­ing. In those days, National Marine Fisheries Service observers — who sailed aboard for­eign fish­ing boats in U.S. waters — were the pri­ma­ry source of Coast Guard fish­ery intel­li­gence and account­ed for only a quar­ter of the for­eign vessel-days in the fish­ery con­ser­va­tion zone. Unless an observ­er raised an issue, the Coast Guard was, essen­tial­ly, oper­at­ing blind, stop­ping and, when weath­er per­mit­ted, search­ing each fish­ing vessel they stum­bled across.

The Ever-Evolving Coast Guard

Maritime Domain Awareness has come a long way since the late sev­en­ties. Today, the Coast Guard knows an awful lot about fish­ing vessel move­ments. While cov­er­age could be better, and the process of get­ting action­able intel­li­gence to a cutter or other inter­dic­tion asset is still not as easy as it should be, the Coast Guard’s abil­i­ty to detect illic­it activ­i­ty far out­strips the force’s abil­i­ty to dis­rupt that activ­i­ty. In the Coast Guard effort to inter­dict nar­cotics during Fiscal Year 2017, law enforce­ment forces in the Eastern Pacific were only able to inter­dict 1 out of every 31 sus­pect­ed traf­fick­ing inci­dents. While the Coast Guard has gotten some addi­tion­al inter­dic­tion help from the U.S. Navy this year, a stronger Coast Guard focus on fish­ing will only increase the number of tar­gets, and, with­out addi­tion­al capac­i­ty, the Coast Guard will strug­gle under the sheer weight of num­bers. 

To build capac­i­ty, the U.S. Coast Guard is taking a inno­v­a­tive approach­es to light­en the load. Certainly, the deter­rence value of a single large U.S. cutter when con­fronting a large fleet of over 300 China-backed fish­ing boats is an open ques­tion, but the Coast Guard is study­ing how to max­i­mize the effec­tive­ness of its lim­it­ed number of deep-sea plat­forms in fish­ery enforce­ment. The U.S. Coast Guard is also respond­ing to the con­cerns of like-minded part­ners, ori­ent­ing itself to help inter­est­ed part­ners build mar­itime domain aware­ness and grow inter­dic­tion capa­bil­i­ty any way they can. 

To reduce the number of tar­gets, the U.S. Coast Guard is also focus­ing beyond the mar­itime by, in part, unspool­ing dark busi­ness arrange­ments that sup­port ille­gal fish­ing fleets. That will be a chal­lenge in itself, requir­ing a whole new set of skills and train­ing for “Coasties.” Fishing enforce­ment may well be less about stop­ping fish­ing boats at sea than in stop­ping flag-of-con­ve­nience states, con­trol­ling deep-water fish­ing fleet financ­ing and unspool­ing the illic­it world of furtive at-sea fish trans­ship­ments. Deft diplo­mat­ic skills are going to be needed, as even some of America’s clos­est friends indulge in ille­gal fish­ing from time to time. 

As with any of the Coast Guard’s recent strate­gic ini­tia­tives, the way ahead will not be easy. But the Coast Guard’s ini­tia­tive is headed to suc­cess. It fol­lows the suc­cess­ful tem­plate the Coast Guard set in defin­ing America’s Arctic Strategy, para­me­ter­iz­ing the prob­lem, out­lin­ing how the Coast Guard will move for­ward, invit­ing like-minded part­ners in the United States and over­seas to join in. It is, cer­tain­ly, an ambi­tious effort for the world’s 12th largest Navy, but the Coast Guard’s capa­ble and steady lead­er­ship team is ready to take it on — just as they have, for years, been qui­et­ly going out and address­ing one over­looked mar­itime chal­lenge after anoth­er. With release of the “Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Strategic Outlook” the U.S. Coast Guard is, again, urging a wide array of like-minded part­ners to join in and make a better, more order­ly and peace­ful mar­itime.

Forbes: Aerospace & Defense source|articles

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