– Executive Summary –

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUUF) is a growing problem for the United States in the Western Pacific, especially in the Oceania region. Oceania extends from Australia to Hawaii and includes several U.S. territories. Overall, the region is vitally important to the United States from a military, economic, and diplomatic perspective. Although the epicenter of Oceania is 5,500 miles away from the U.S. mainland, IUUF activity in Oceania is a direct threat to U.S. homeland defense. China is using IUUF and a militarized fishing fleet to exert its influence in the Oceania region and is extending this influence across the Pacific, encroaching on the United States.[1] IUUF is also a direct threat to homeland security, especially economic security, the security effects from increased transnational organized crime, and border security.

Collectively, IUUF as a singular term represents detrimental fishing practices and is widespread throughout every region of the world. It is estimated that 15–30 percent of global fish catches are from IUUF practices.[2] Fishers resort to IUUF for many reasons. First and foremost, it can be extremely profitable—IUU fishers can easily ignore catch restrictions, sell fish at competitive prices, and bypass the costs associated with fishing legally such as licensing requirements.[3] Furthermore, even if fishers are caught conducting IUUF, the penalties incurred are not strong enough to deter their behavior. Next, there are very few barriers to entry—fishers can engage in illegal fishing with the skills and equipment they already possess.[4] Last, there is an overall low probability of detection. The oceans and waterways of the world are vast, fishery supply chains are complex, and there simply are not enough surveillance means and enforcement assets to monitor and enforce fishing regulations.

Oceania is vulnerable and susceptible to IUUF because of its geography, climate change, population growth, economic factors, proximity to overfished regions, and lack of governance and maritime enforcement assets. This vulnerability translates to instability in the region, which is especially concerning for the United States because Oceania is vitally important to U.S. defense strategies. Dating back to World War II, Oceania has played a critical role in U.S. defense. From the Pearl Harbor attack to the United States’ retaliatory advancement on Japan through a Central Pacific island-hopping strategy, Oceanian Pacific islands played a vital role.[5] Oceanian islands play an equally important role today as part of the United States’ island-chain strategy. This strategy includes several Oceanian islands under U.S. influence that act as barriers to Pacific expansion by China, Russia, and other Asian countries.[6] These islands include several United States territories and states—Hawaii, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa—which play significant military, diplomatic, and economic roles for the United States. China is using IUUF, foreign aid, and trade to exert its influence in Oceania and disrupt the United States’ island-chain strategy. As China expands its influence across Oceania, it is on an inevitable collision course with the United States.

The IUUF vulnerabilities of the region are also concerning from a homeland security perspective for the United States. From an economic security standpoint, IUUF is extremely challenging for the $5 billion U.S. fishing industry as more than 80 percent of fish eaten domestically are imported.[7] Weak traceability regulations for these imports make it impossible to determine whether imported fish have been legally sourced, meaning that the United States is inadvertently supporting IUUF.[8] Next, transnational organized crime (TOC) resulting from IUUF also poses a security threat to the United States. Countries in Oceania rely on the fishing industry for survival. IUUF is destroying fish stocks and forcing fishing communities to turn to drug smuggling, human trafficking, piracy, and other illicit activities to make an income.[9] This increase in TOC leads to instability in the region, and expanding TOC networks have severe security implications for the United States and its territories, including smuggling threats, money laundering, government corruption, and the growth of terrorist organizations.[10] The last major homeland security concern is migration security issues for the United States that stem from IUUF in Oceania. Chiefly, some Oceanian fishers whose livelihood has been compromised by IUUF have turned to the United States and migration for survival, which leads to border security challenges, sustainability and economic growth concerns, and the potential importation of terrorists and criminals.[11]

While the region—especially superpowers, including the United States, Australia, France, and New Zealand—has made a concerted effort to combat IUUF, multiple gaps remain. The first involves transshipments involving the use of refrigerated cargo ships to transfer fish at sea, which masks IUUF practices. Second, the use of government subsidies for fishing decreases fish stocks and increases IUUF practices. The third gap relates to supply chain traceability and the challenge for consumers to gauge whether their fish has been sustainably and legally sourced. Fourth, open-registry states—where fishing vessels can register with a country, even if it is not their home of residency—allow fishers to bypass IUUF regulations. Fifth, the overall lack of appropriate sanctions and enforcement for IUUF activity does little to deter IUUF behavior. Sixth, counter-IUUF monitoring, control, and surveillance are mostly inadequate in the Oceania region. Seventh, the United States’ refusal to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) limits the overall effectiveness of the largest maritime international agreement and counter-IUUF mechanism. Eighth, information sharing between Oceanian territories is weak and hampers counter-IUUF practices. Ninth, fishing crews that want to alert authorities about IUUF activity lack whistleblowing regulations and protections. Tenth, several technological shortfalls hamper counter-IUUF strategies.

This thesis applied a six-step strategic analysis framework to evaluate these gaps and provide steps for the United States and its partnering nations to develop a more robust strategy to combat IUUF. The strategic recommendations and associated feasibility and risk concerns are summarized in the following table.

Table. Key Recommendations, Feasibility, and Risk Analysis

RecommendationFeasibility and Risk
(Political, Economic, Social, Technological)
Superpower alliance and relianceFeasible and low risk across all dimensions.
Improved transshipment policiesEconomic feasibility challenges as limiting transshipments would take a toll on the cost structure of major fisheries. Technological feasibility challenges in trying to detect unreported transshipment activity.
Increased regional collaborationWhile the technology certainly exists for this level of collaboration, there are political and social-equity feasibility challenges. Certain countries may be wary of sharing proprietary data, and if every country is not willing to fully share, it may create dissent and a lack of transparency.
U.S. UNCLOS ratificationAmerican leadership has historically viewed it as an economic and political risk, which still carries weight for present-day decision-making, thus restricting feasibility.
Whistleblowing protectionsSocial feasibility challenges for the reputation and trust of whistleblowers if their identities are not protected.
SanctionsFeasible and low risk across all dimensions. Sanctions target only IUUF behavior, an acceptable political risk given that populations in the region want sustainable and protected fish stocks.
Regulation supportPolitically challenging to encourage countries to support regulations they deem harmful. It might require political capital better reserved for more pressing regional issues.
Trade restrictions on flags of convenience (FOCs)Feasible and low risk across all dimensions. The technology already exists to track these vessels, and it would be uneconomical for only those vessels operating under FOCs, which would be an acceptable risk for political leaders and the general regional population.
Emerging technology relianceEconomic risk considerations include cost–benefit analyses for investing in unproven technologies or relying on current technology.
NGO partnershipsFeasible and low risk across all dimensions.
Traceability mechanismsTechnology barriers for implementation. The technology exists, but its implementation on a large scale could make it infeasible. Socially feasible using meat, textiles, lumber, diamonds, and other industries as benchmarks.

[1] Ian Urbina, “How China’s Expanding Fishing Fleet Is Depleting the World’s Oceans,” Yale Environment 360, August 17, 2020, https://e360.yale.edu/features/how-chinas-expanding-fishing-fleet-is-depleting-worlds-oceans; Derek Grossman and Logan Ma, “A Short History of China’s Fishing Militia and What It May Tell Us,” Maritime Issues,April 5, 2020, 7, http://www.maritimeissues.com/uploaded/A%20‌Short%20History%20of%20China%E2%80%99s%20Fishing%20Militia%20%20and%20What%20it%20May%20Tell%20Us.pdf.

[2] National Intelligence Council, “Global Implications of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing” (official memorandum, Washington, DC: Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2016), https://irp.fas.org/nic/fishing.pdf.

[3] Centre for Economics and Business Research, An Agent Based Model of IUU Fishing in a Two-State System with Information Sharing (London: Centre for Economics and Business Research, 2020), https://cebr.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/An-agent-based-model-of-IUU-fishing-in-a-two-state-system-with-information-sharing-Cebr-report.pdf.

[4] Centre for Economics and Business Research.

[5] James J. Wirtz, review of Spies for Nimitz: Joint Military Intelligence in the Pacific War, by Jeffrey M. Moore, Naval War College Review 58, no. 4 (2005): 153–55, http://www.jstor.‌org/stable/26396686.

[6] Sasha Davis, Lexi A. Munger, and Hannah J. Legacy, “Someone Else’s Chain, Someone Else’s Road: U.S. Military Strategy, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Island Agency in the Pacific,” Island Studies Journal 15, no. 2 (November 2020): 13–35, http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.nps.edu/10.24043/isj.104.

[7] U.S. Coast Guard, Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Strategic Outlook (Washington, DC: U.S. Coast Guard, 2020), https://www.uscg.mil/iuufishing/.

[8] Kristina Boerder, Nathan Miller, and Boris Worm, “Global Hot Spots of Transshipment of Fish Catch at Sea,” Science Advances 4, no. 7 (2018), https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aat7159.

[9] U.S. Coast Guard, Strategic Outlook.

[10] National Security Council, “Transnational Organized Crime: A Growing Threat to National and International Security,” Obama White House Archives, accessed January 2, 2021, https://obamawhite‌house.archives.gov/administration/eop/nsc/transnational-crime/threat; “Implications of Transnational Organized Crime (TOC),” ASIS International, January 3, 2019, http://www.asisonline.org/publications–resources/news/blog/implications-of-transnational-organized-crime-toc/.

[11] E. J. Moore and J. W. Smith, “Climatic Change and Migration from Oceania: Implications for Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America,” Population and Environment 17, no. 2 (1995): 105–22, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27503450; Michael Humphrey, “Migration, Security and Insecurity,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 34, no. 2 (2013): 178–95, https://doi.org/10.1080/07256868.2013.781982.

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