Counternarcotics tactics could thwart illegal fishing, experts say

Counternarcotics tactics could thwart illegal fishing, experts say


As illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing reportedly grows worldwide, security experts are exploring the use of transnational counternarcotics strategies to combat the practice, especially in the Indo-Pacific.

IUU fishing threatens the livelihoods of more than 3 billion people worldwide who rely on fishing for work or food, according to ShareAmerica. More than 33% of global fish stocks are overfished and 59.9% are at maximally sustained harvest levels, a 2018 United Nations report determined.

Increasingly criminal networks that traffic in drugs, weapons and humans are turning to illegal fishing to help support their organizations, security experts said. For example, crime groups often use shell companies to launder money and enslave workers to conduct IUU fishing, according to a 2018 Stimson Center report.

Stopping such crimes is beyond the scope of the natural resource management and conservation communities that monitor IUU fishing, said the Stimson report, titled “Casting a Wider Net: The Security Implications of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing.” Although not all IUU fishing is tied to organized crime, law enforcement agencies say the trend is increasing, the report said.

Such threats to national and regional security “necessitate countries across the world, and particularly the United States, to develop a whole-of-government strategy to combat IUU fishing,” which “involves tapping into the expertise of agencies across government, including those with knowledge spanning from natural resource management, development, trade and finance to intelligence gathering and law enforcement, as well as the wide community of stakeholders interested in combating IUU fishing,” the report said.

“To combat these criminal networks in a more holistic way, build more meaningful relationships with Indo-Pacific partners, and increase U.S. maritime presence in the Pacific, Congress should charge the Department of Defense with a more direct supporting role,” U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Jeremy Greenwood, a federal executive fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., wrote in a February 2022 article for the think tank.

Specifically, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force West (JIATF West), based in Hawaii, could combat IUU fishing with tools developed to counter drug trafficking, Greenwood wrote. The task force, which is headed by a U.S. Coast Guard admiral, combines resources across intelligence and government agencies to address law enforcement objectives from a defense perspective. (Pictured: A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter flies over a vessel suspected of illegal fishing in the Pacific Ocean.)

Since its founding in 1989, JIATF West has led U.S. efforts to thwart the import by sea of precursor chemicals used to make illegal drugs, especially those originating in the People’s Republic of China, that are shipped with legal cargo from the Indo-Pacific to North America. The task force’s tactics differ markedly from those associated with stopping drug runners in Central or South America, Greenwood explained.

“This makes the nature of their work less about real-time tasking of military or law enforcement assets to interdict ships at sea, and more about building information-sharing networks with law enforcement and military agencies in the U.S. and throughout the region,” Greenwood wrote.

“This sharing of actionable intelligence allows port authorities, customs officials, and law enforcement throughout the Pacific to distinguish illicit narcotics and drug precursors from a sea of legitimate cargo.” The capabilities could be used to track illegal shipments of fish and movement of ships engaged in IUU fishing.

JIATF West’s “unique experience working closely with Indo-Pacific partners on law enforcement, gathering intelligence on an illicit activity that has legitimate uses as well, and operating in a vast ocean space makes them well-suited to tackling” IUU fishing,, he wrote.

The U.S. Defense Department could also build on JIATF West’s network of relationships with law enforcement agencies to increase maritime domain awareness for Indo-Pacific allies and partners, proponents contend.

“There are significant links between IUU fishing and human trafficking, drug smuggling and myriad other maritime crimes,” U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Ben Crowell  with JIATF West and retired U.S. Navy Capt. Wade Turvold, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, asserted in a 2021 FORUM article. “Because of the global, networked and strategic nature of the problem, addressing the IUU fishing threat requires a coordinated international response.”