What was the underlying reason for the first construction of U.S. ships (six frigates) at the beginning of the 19th century? Piracy, as in the Barbary Pirates, who were deemed a hazard to U.S. national and global safety. Today, there is a related threat to our national and natural security on the high seas — “pirate fishing,” or more specifically, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Just as the Barbary Pirates created a security threat to those on and near the ocean, so too does IUU fishing, which happens when pirate fishers violate national laws or international agreements and treaties.
(From National Security Forum, By Jon White) — This illegal fishing practice is more than a conservation and sustainability issue. IUU fishing is directly linked to trans-national criminal activity, chiefly human, drug, and arms trafficking; smuggling; and terrorism. As pirate vessels enslave laborers and transport illegal drugs, they effectively out-compete law-abiding fishers (undermining the 260 million legal fisheries jobs worldwide) while funding terrorist activities around the globe, such as the 2004 al-Qaida terrorist bombings in Spain. The far-reaching implications of IUU fishing on national security must be considered as actions in remote corners of the globe that directly affect our nation’s safety and economic stability (commercial fisheries constitute a multi-billion dollar industry).
We can’t underestimate the threat unsustainable fisheries has on our natural security. As one of the world’s greatest food sources, fisheries provide 20 percent of the animal protein in humans’ diet. To maintain global food stability, it is imperative that we properly manage this resource.
Environmental crime undermines this — the inability to measure exactly how much is illegally harvested makes it impossible to implement effective management plans, resulting in overfishing and overexploitation. Additionally, destructive fishing methods (e.g., bottom trawling, dynamite fishing) destroy critical fish habitat and diminish biodiversity, turning once-healthy ocean areas into marine deserts incapable of supporting life. Destabilizing a region’s food source acts as a catalyst for conflict; the connections between food scarcity, human migration, and social and political instability are evident across history and in recent events in Syria and the Arab Spring.
Actions at the federal level, as well as technological advancements, can help address the threats of IUU fishing. The Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Enforcement Act of 2015 (Public Law No: 114–81) streamlines enforcement of federal fishing laws and increases the capacity to monitor illegal foreign vessels. Additional federal actions should include expanding the Presidential Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud and the Global Food Security Strategy to include ocean science in food security topics. Sustained investment in ocean science and technology is critical to combat IUU fishing, ensure legal fisheries remain sustainable, and interpret how changing conditions affect the ocean now and in the future. For example, oceanographic observational instruments (e.g. buoys, unmanned vehicles) measuring ocean conditions can have secondary missions for enforcement as surveillance technologies are integrated to monitor illegal activities.
Armed with information on ocean conditions, the U.S. and our allies can more effectively combat illegal fishing and related criminal activities. Increased knowledge of our ocean processes and resources enhances our maritime domain awareness (a critical component of national and homeland security), strengthens our military’s response capabilities, and reduces the likelihood of conflict. Ocean science bolsters our national security, supports a safe and efficient maritime transportation system, underpins our economy, and furthers understanding of complex ocean and coastal processes important to our everyday lives — today and tomorrow.
Jon White is the President and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. He retired in 2015 from active Naval Service, after 32 years as a naval officer and oceanographer, culminating in his final assignment as the Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy. Grace Roskar is a policy intern at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership who graduated in 2016 from the University of Miami with a degree in marine and atmospheric science.