Illegal Fishing Now Worse Than Piracy

The U.S. Coast Guard sounded the alarm on illegal fishing in the open ocean.
IUU fishing vessel NOAA
An illegal fishing vessel off the coast of Gabon, Africa. Courtesy NOAA Fisheries

Piracy has been a serious global problem since Blackbeard and his swashbucklers prowled the waters near the West Indies in the 1700s. More recently, in the last decade, offshore piracy in the Gulf of Guinea near several West African countries made worldwide headlines. Now, according to noted international experts, a new threat has surpassed piracy — illegal fishing.

During a recent ocean security forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C., most on the panel agreed that illegal fishing has trumped piracy as a Coast Guard global concern.

“The Coast Guard has been in the [fishing] enforcement game for a long time,” said Rear Admiral Jo-Ann F. Burdian. Recently, the U.S. Coast Guard has been enforcing the ban on football-field-size ocean drift nets that destroy the world’s fish stocks.

Illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) global fishing has led to serious ocean conflicts like the ones between Filipino fishermen and fleets of Chinese boats, Burdian detailed during the forum. Food security for nations can be at stake, leading to continuing disputes over high seas fishing, she explained.

According to Burdian, other countries model their fisheries enforcement after the U.S. Coast Guard. She said the 14th Coast Guard District in Hawaii is helping train maritime forces from smaller island nations so they can monitor their exclusive economic zones and enforce fishing restraints within them.

“Fishing is the fundamental pillar for many nations to provide food for their populations,” said Kelly Kryc, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s deputy assistant secretary for international fisheries. For many nations, fish is the primary currency they rely on to feed their citizens and preserve their cultures.

“The United States government cannot solve this problem alone,” Kryc continued, as mentioned in a Naval Institute release. “These are problems without borders. We work with those who are willing to work (on enforcement) with us on the problem at the source.”

Such working enforcement partnerships have to come with no strings attached and must be continuously enforced to be effective, said Maxine Burkett, a deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of State. She noted that illegal fishing is an “escalating problem,” with criminal networks increasingly trafficking illegal catches that adversely impact open ocean fish.

The forum participants also discussed the Maritime SAFE Act, that became U.S. law in 2019. The act provides a structured approach to combat IUU fishing and related threats to maritime security.

When they introduced the SAFE Act before it became law, senators Christopher Coons (D-Del.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said IUU fishing “is an issue that not only poses a serious threat to our own national security, but also contributes to instability in regions important to United States interests.”

Coons went further, saying The SAFE ACT legislation “allows the United States to combat a multi-billion dollar criminal industry that undercuts the economic livelihoods of legitimate fishermen and threatens food security for communities around the world.”