PacNet #52 – The Growing Crisis of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing

A recent conference, in which Pacific Forum joined the Navy League’s Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange (IMSE), the East-West Center, and the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, focused on the problems of IUU fishing and potential solutions to counter its recent dramatic growth. The author was one of the organizers of the conference, whose proceedings and session videos can be found at https://imsehawaii.org.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has become a major problem worldwide and particularly in the Pacific. According to the US Coast Guard, “IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat. If IUU fishing continues unchecked, we can expect deterioration of fragile coastal States and increased tension among foreign-fishing Nations, threatening geo-political stability around the world.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that approximately 60% of fish caught worldwide come from the Pacific Ocean. Over half are species that are unsustainable if fishing at current rates and methods continue. As fishing fleets have grown they have outstripped the oceans abilities to replenish stocks. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) is estimated to catch approximately 35% of fish, according to NOAA statistics. Dr. Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales stated in his address to the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange’s recent conference on the subject that the PRC is also the no. 1 nation for IUU fishing. Others have been complicit in IUU fishing, including Taiwan and Vietnam. Vietnam, after receiving a warning from the European Union that its fish exports would be barred from its market formulated a high-level task force to work against such practices. Taiwan for diplomatic reasons has done the same. But IUU fishing tends to be a low-risk/high-value activity as penalties for IUU fishers consist mostly of modest fines.

There are many aspects to the problem.

  • Illegal fishing is conducted in waters under the jurisdiction of a state but without the permission of that state.
  • Unreported fishing involves a catch that has not been reported, as required.
  • Unregulated fishing occurs where there are no management measures and is conducted in a manner inconsistent with treaty responsibilities.

Besides over-harvesting of species, IUU fishing takes money from legal fishers and out of local economies. Fisheries are the primary source of income for many Pacific and Oceanic states. It is projected by the Nature Conservancy that many Pacific Island nations will not be able to meet their local food needs in a few years given their population growth and continued IUU fishing. The Nature Conservancy also estimates that over 95% of IUU fishing activities by the Pacific Tuna Fleet involve legally licensed boats that misreport their catch, not by so-called unregistered dark boats.”

IUU fishing also destroys habitat. Bottom trawling damages corals and sea grasses. The losses of sea grasses are important regarding COand climate change. It is estimated the loss of grasses has a greater effect than the CO2 emissions from Germany or the international aviation industry.

Other crimes are associated with IUU fishing, including forgery of records and fraud, corruption, false vessel identity and flagging, licensing avoidance and deception, human rights abuses (e.g., forced labor, human trafficking, and child labor), illegal transshipments of catch and fuel, smuggling of drugs and protected species, black marketeering and money laundering, and the evasion of penalties.

Finding potential solutions to counter IUU fishing was the principal focus of the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange conference in early September.

Heretofore surveillance of territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones relied on a nation’s patrol ships and aircraft and active transmissions, such as from the Advanced Identification System (AIS) and vessel monitoring system (VMS), mandated by nations to monitor ships in their areas of responsibility. But IUU fishers often turn off these transmitters—and increasingly spoof their signals—to hide illegal activities.

Sea-based aerial drones are proving to be a valuable adjunct to ships and aircraft for covert surveillance, according to the US Coast Guard, which employs the ScanEagle drone from its newer cutters. Satellite electro-optical imagery has been available commercially for years, but is limited by field of view, resolution, and weather. When cued by other sources, however, it can help identify suspicious vessels.

Newer forms of imagery include the Visible and Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, from NOAA’s Joint Polar-orbiting Satellite System, which detects the bright nighttime lights used by many purse seiner and ring net fishing boats to attract squid and other species. Another is synthetic aperture radar (SAR). It allows surveillance in all-weather conditions as it penetrates clouds and darkness. Many nations have orbited SAR satellites, and commercial companies have recently entered the marketplace for SAR imagery.

The collection of radio frequency emissions by commercial satellites is a new capability. Several US and European firms have entered this market and can pick up navigation radar and other radio emissions from boats at sea even if the boats turn off their required AIS or VMS broadcasts.

In development are unmanned vessels that tow underwater hydrophones that can detect, classify, and report via satellite vessels by type and activity through analysis of sonograms.

While there are many sensor sources, they can produce an overwhelming amount of data and any one source is rarely sufficient to determine many kinds of IUU fishing. The integration of data from disparate sources and the analysis of those data is therefore critical. The data glut is a challenge requiring various advanced analytical techniques, including artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Several organizations analyze data related to IUU fishing. Best known is Global Fishing Watch, a nongovernmental organization that tracks in near-real time fishing around the globe. Australia’s Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources is the responsible overseer of fishing in the broad Southern Ocean surrounding the Antarctic continent. The Pacific Islands Fishing Forum Agency, the International Maritime Control and Surveillance network, and several universities and commercial firms are also involved in aspects of analyzing IUU fishing to provide scientific insight, risk management judgments to companies, or assist in investigations of organizations and individuals behind such illegal activities.

IUU fishing knows no national boundaries. It is a growing global problem. No one nation is capable of enforcing fishing laws and regulations. Countering IUU fishing will require multi-state collaboration, information sharing, and multilateral agreements between regional fishing management organizations, of which there are a plethora. To date, however, information sharing has not always gone well.

There are approaches to IUU fishing beyond law enforcement that organizations are pursuing. These include eliminating national subsidies for fishing. The PRCs subsidies, the most generous of any nation by far, estimated at approximately $7.2 billion in 2018, make otherwise unprofitable fishing profitable, according to Prof. Tabitha Mallory of the China Ocean Institute and the University of Washington. Certification of catches assures buyers of fish that they were caught legally. Publicity about IUU fishing and the deceptive practices associated with it is seen as an important step in depressing market attractiveness of illegally caught fish. Finally, the promotion of aquaculture—farm-raised fish, in which the PRC is deeply invested, is seen as a potential solution for future food needs.

Peter Oleson (peter.oleson@yahoo.com) is a former senior defense official and professor.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #31 – The Structural Limits of the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative

As a hub of global economic activity and great power tensions, the Indo-Pacific is home to an increasing number of minilateral arrangements shaping the future of the region. Groupings like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), as well as the Japan-America-India, Australia-Japan-India, and France-Australia-India trilaterals demonstrate this trend. The Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI), launched in April 2021 and complementing the Australia-Japan-India trilateral, is the latest such venture.

China’s deep integration in the international financial system and status as “factory of the world” make global supply chains unsustainably China-centric. COVID-19 revealed many states’ over-dependence on China-centered value chains, and the SCRI seeks to reconfigure global supply chain networks to overcome such vulnerabilities.

The SCRI seeks to ensure global supply chains remain resilient to future “black swan” events, such as pandemics and geopolitical tensions. With several states prioritizing supply chain risk diversification, the SCRI can also further Indo-Pacific economic security dialogue between like-minded nations. Importantly, the SCRI can help balance against China’s rapidly expanding influence, including through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Yet, despite its merits, the SCRI faces considerable structural limitations.

Firstly, although primarily a geo-economic mechanism, the SCRI risks losing focus amid the intensifying regional power rivalry. The initiative is a product of strategic necessity brought about by the pandemic, yet this emphasis on supply chain management is frequently ignored in media and scholarship in favor of strategic positioning vis-a-vis China. Yet, like Japan’s Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure and India’s Act East Policy, the SCRI is not necessarily an anti-China venture.

China-dependent supply chains are a major concern for both smaller and major powers across many critical sectors, including essential pharmaceutical products, food, and industrial raw materials. However, the SCRI does not aim to entirely re-route existing supply chains; this would require complete economic decoupling from China, an unfeasible (and undesirable) goal considering Beijing’s economic clout. Instead, it seeks to build alternative, resilient supply chains to reduce over-dependency, diversify risk, and enhance ability to absorb future market disruptions. Rather than isolating China, the aim is to ensure national economies can withstand adversity. The focus on enhancing cooperation with like-minded nations is drawn on the imperative of building “a free, fair, inclusive, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment.” The focus on inclusivity implies openness to dialogue (or participation) with all nations committed to similar ideals—even China.

Secondly, the SCRI remains far-fetched, even overly ambitious. Despite their broad-based synergy on China (or matters relating to China), the main proponents of the SCRI—Australia, India, and Japan—have gaps in their global multilateral practices, including trade and economic outlooks. This will limit the progress of the SCRI. For instance, Japan’s reluctance to support the expansion of the G7 to include India and Australia highlights how national interest considerations supersede any prospects of regional cooperation. Japan is a trading economy, and supply chains are critical to its growth. This is not true for India, which prioritizes manufacturing and innovation, even while aspiring to enhance integration with other economies before it can emerge as a trading nation. These differences could impact the SCRI’s direction and the importance each state gives it.

Thirdly, no clear vision currently exists among SCRI founders on how to shape their initiative. To succeed, a clear plan or charter is vital. The lack of a guiding document risks hampering cooperation, as has been the case with the Quad and Quad-plus, which has only picked up steam over the past year amid increased tensions with China. A similar problem emerged with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Although India and Australia became AIIB members, Japan and the United States opposed it. With RCEP, Japan and Australia could not continue engaging (or supporting) India, displaying a lack of coordination and resulting in New Delhi’s withdrawal from this mega-trade deal.

These examples show the need for a common understanding, agreed framework, and concentrated dialogue to shape and implement the initiative. A charter would be useful in laying down expectations and requirements for the SCRI. As founding members consider the SCRI’s expansion “based on consensus” and acknowledge the importance of business and academia in further developing it, a charter could be critical in coding and committing to an “inclusive” outlook. A formal document would also mitigate criticisms that the initiative is a cartel or “anti-China,” potentially opening the door to induction for Beijing (or even to countries aligned strongly with Beijing) and allowing the Australia-Japan-India trilateral a rulebook to regulate China’s actions.

Fourthly, the SCRI remains limited to its founding members. With its focus on recalibrating global supply chains, expansion to include the United States must be explored. This would make the SCRI a derivative of the Quad, strengthening the Indo-Pacific concept and furthering their supply chain goals. President Biden’s recent comprehensive supply chain review outlined Washington’s need to build “resilient, diverse, and secure” supply chains; SCRI integration could be a productive move forward.

Similarly, the SCRI must consider full/partial participation of key economies and economic blocs—including ASEAN, the European Union (especially France, given its Indo-Pacific focus), and the United Kingdom. Several such entities, including the United States and ASEAN, have sought to reconfigure supply chains to reduce dependence on China and increase resiliency, but made no concerted effort in this direction. While the SCRI might be an Asian exercise, its ambition to create diverse, expansive, inclusive, and resilient supply chains mandates involvement by other major and middle-ranked economies everywhere. Moreover, the participation of technologically advanced actors beyond Asia would prove crucial given the SCRI’s focus on digital technologies. 

The SCRI’s success will depend on inroads it can make with ASEAN. With Australia-Japan-India at its core, the SCRI promotes inclusivity and multipolarity, but also seeks to build Asia-driven (or Indo-Pacific-driven) supply chains. Japan and India are key East Asian and South Asian economic powers; Australia is a major Indo-Pacific actor closely connected to Asia. In relative comprehensive national power, the Lowy Institute’s 2020 Asia Index placed Japan third in the region, India fourth, Australia sixth, and the United States first (with China a close second). Connecting with ASEAN will be economically lucrative and promote the SCRI’s “Asian” vision.

Despite its merits, the SCRI is structurally limited right now. Yet with economic transformation and post-pandemic recovery shaping regional power distribution, the expectations for the SCRI are immense. To meet expectations, the Australia-Japan-India trilateral must acknowledge the challenges and shape the initiative adequately to overcome them.

Dr. Jagannath Panda (jppjagannath@gmail.com) is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Dr. Panda is the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia.”

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.