The Soviet fishing fleet was once a near-permanent fixture on America’s Pacific coast, hauling in an estimated 1.2 million tons of fish until the two sides reached an agreement to limit the Soviet catch in exchange for a relaxation of rules on Soviet port visits. Moscow’s fishing fleet dwindled in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, only to be replaced by China’s large fleet — and maritime militia — that Beijing now uses to encroach on the sovereignty of its neighbors. The environmental and economic challenges of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing are clearly a threat to the global fish supply, but also represent a more direct and significant threat to national security.
The vast expansion of China’s illegal fishing fleet has made large, capable vessels readily available to its maritime militia, which it uses for coercive influence in contested areas from the Spratly Islands to oil and gas standoffs with Malaysia and Vietnam. More importantly, it represents a clear example of how China refuses to accept the rights of coastal states and their claim on the resources of their economic exclusion zones.
The U.S. Coast Guard is well positioned to work with countries to push back against China’s fishing practices, and to take the lead on this issue. It has the capabilities to provide willing partners and allies with advice and assistance on illegal fishing and can work with coastal states on identifying and remedying the threat.
In June 2022, the Biden administration released the memorandum on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Associated Labor Abuses. The document captures the threat from illegal fishing fleets but treats the issue as environmental and economic, rather than recognizing it as a coercive tool of Chinese statecraft. According to U.S. Southern Command, illegal fishing costs nations in the western hemisphere alone $2.7 billion dollars annually in lost revenue. Yet, there are few coherent regional solutions to tackle this problem.
The most fundamental challenge to tackling this global problem is size. The Pacific Ocean is huge. In 2021, the United States and the other three members of the quad announced plans to greatly improve maritime domain awareness, leveraging commercial satellites. However, the resources dedicated stand in stark contrast to the vast size of the territory that needs to be monitored.
The United States should look to the past to think about the future. The Soviet Union operated the largest distant-water fishing fleet and utilized both bilateral economic aid and fishing agreements as techniques to undermine regional responses. The United States responded with a number of activities, such as support for the establishment of the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone and laws like the Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976 that asserted control over foreign fisheries operating close to the United States. Today, the solution should leverage the model set by the Global Peace Operations Initiative to codify that illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is a strategic threat to coastal states. The United States should adopt the successful lessons from global peacekeeping practices and provide bilateral security and economic assistance to willing partners.
Fishing Lessons from the Cold War
China’s distant-water fleet is nearly identical to the main player in a key Cold War struggle: The Soviet Union’s fishing fleet was used to encroach on foreign country sovereignty. During the 1950s the Soviet Union accounted for 6 percent of the global catch, a figure that grew to 17 percent in the 1970s. It was once common to see Soviet state-sponsored fleets off the coast of the United States from Alaska to California to Oregon.
In response to Soviet over-fishing, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru produced the Santiago Declaration of 1952, which proposed to fix a 200 nautical mile limit of sovereignty and jurisdiction — a limit that would eventually be codified into the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and enter fully into force in 1994.
Contemporary enforcement of this established sovereignty remains challenging. First, the ocean is vast and states have finite resources. Second, combatting large-scale illegal fishing requires a different set of capabilities than other maritime security missions — with a much heavier emphasis on regulatory supervision, engagement with industry, legal frameworks, and maritime domain awareness.
China has exploited these challenges and has also used economic assistance to “buy off” coastal states. The Chinese government’s goal is to force leaders choose whether to crack down on illegal Chinese fishing and risk losing economic assistance, or simply turn a blind eye to the illegal activities. This choice is purely theoretical when states lack the capacity to respond. Empowering states to address illegal and unregulated fishing in a bilateral and non-committal manner would redefine the “rules of the road” for cost-benefit assessments against the economic incentives of powerful state-driven loans and contracts. While these bilateral contracts are notorious for being secretive, a recent study reveals default clauses that broadly apply to any adverse action a country might take against Chinese interests. One example highlights an agreement between the Chinese Development Banks and the Ecuadorian Ministry of Finance that serves to illustrate the tough choices that export-dependent nations face in deciding how to confront Chinese-sponsored fishing fleets while also maintaining access to the vast capital and markets that Beijing controls.
After hundreds of Chinese-flagged fishing vessels encroached on the Galapagos Islands during the summer of 2020, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia issued a joint statement of cooperation on illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. However, they refrained from naming China as the culprit. Still, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica sought to manage Chinese encroachment, issuing a joint memorandum of understanding to connect their respective marine protected areas across 500,000 square kilometers of the eastern Pacific Ocean and strengthening the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR).
Global Peacekeeping as the Model
China’s challenges require a collective response. Fortunately, an effective model to build and sustain a global concept to address illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing already exists. The Global Peace Operations Initiative includes 50 partner countries that the United States government has helped to train, equip, and fund to be self-sufficient in their support to U.N. peacekeeping operations around the world. This highly successful program has largely allowed the U.S. military to remove itself from direct peacekeeping roles and focus on the high-end fight. This same concept can be used to monitor illegal fishing activities — including actions conducted by China’s maritime militia.
The United States uses bilateral and multilateral initiatives to train and work alongside partners and allies. The Coast Guard has an interest in expanding these partnerships with the nations most affected by large-scale, state-sponsored fishing. These countries are predominately in coastal Africa, Latin America, and South Asia, where the United States also has an interest in deepening cooperation with countries that China has sought to invest in. These maritime countries are also the top troop-contributing countries to U.N. peacekeeping operations.
Examples of maritime peacekeepers across U.N. peacekeeping missions are limited, though notable contributions to highlight by Global Peacekeeping Operations Initiative recipients include maritime forces of Uruguay in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and of Bangladesh in Mali and South Sudan. Additionally, the Bangladeshi navy has also contributed to the only U.N. Naval Task Force as part of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon in support of the Lebanese navy.
Despite facing challenges, Uruguay has been a shining example of commitment to U.N. peacekeeping, with over 90 percent of its entire military force having served as part of a peacekeeping mission. Uruguay has provided more peacekeepers per capita than any other nation. Home to a highly successful (and aid-supported) National Peace Operations Training Institute, Uruguay trains not only its own peacekeepers but also those from neighboring countries.
Likewise, the Global Peace Operations Initiative has supported the establishment of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace Support Operation Training, which has helped to not only recognize Bangladesh’s 30 years of U.N. peacekeeping but also to put it on a path to self-sustainability as the world’s largest contributor of U.N. military and police peacekeeping personnel.
U.S. Coast Guard in the Lead
Though non-governmental organizations have done much to draw awareness to the issue, and in some cases even directly confront it, it is the U.S. Coast Guard that has the requisite skillsets and service reputation to take the lead in implementing a global illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing initiative. With over 230 years of regulating commerce, protecting resources, and engaging with the public, the Coast Guard is well positioned to collaborate with both non-governmental organizations and willing international partners that express interest in working with the United States on addressing illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
Despite a growing role in answering national security objectives, and sharing the mission profile of most of the world’s maritime services, the Coast Guard is still under-resourced to fill a leading role in the security cooperation realm. Outside of strong operational relationships with neighboring countries in the western hemisphere, the Coast Guard generally serves as an implementing partner, with limited personnel stationed abroad, no formal Foreign Area Officer career path or training, and intermittent global presence by major cutters while balancing domestic responsibilities and the counter-drug mission.
A global program would present an opportunity for the U.S. government to answer strategic needs by leveraging the Coast Guard’s strengths and relationships, combined with those of the U.S. interagency landscape, to identify countries (such as Uruguay and Bangladesh) who are willing to work with the United States and their neighbors to address illegal, state-sponsored fishing. This would also help to free up high-end U.S. assets to be available in theaters of principal concern.
Despite U.N. peacekeeping success abroad, the Uruguayan navy faces challenges domestically, with an aging fleet. Its recently expanded exclusive economic zone serves as a forcing function for Uruguay to modernize its fleet, through such efforts as the recent acquisition of three U.S. Coast Guard 87-foot Marine Protector-class coastal patrol boats to help to improve search and rescue and fisheries enforcement capabilities.
Exercising these existing U.S. Coast Guard relationships is key to forming a foundation of like-minded nations and maritime services. Other possible partners include Colombia, which has grown into an exporter of security cooperation and a global leader in maritime interdiction, as demonstrated through Naval Campaign Orion, and has recently committed to protecting 30 percent of its exclusive economic zone. As described in the Tri-Service Maritime Strategy — Advantage at Sea, these partners can “generate enormous power to modify behavior in the maritime domain … and play a crucial role in deterring opportunistic aggression in additional theaters, as well as maintaining maritime governance and exposing malign behavior.”
Properly resourcing the U.S Coast Guard to act as the lead agency for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing engagement internationally does not simply imply more funding, but rather establishing a concrete program — based on current initiatives with a proven track record — that would let the Coast Guard take concrete steps to work with key partners to monitor Chinese fishing.
First, they would be joining a program unambiguously focused on countering China’s illegal fishing without the need for difficult-to-obtain shifts in national policy statements or consensus among international organizations. Second, the United States can leverage security cooperation programs to enhance partner capabilities — a key advantage at a moment when U.S. forces are stretched thin. Finally, such partnerships would provide a defense relationship nexus that breaks from legacy programs such as counternarcotics — often internally polarized — and shifts to countering extra-regional actors such as the Chinese government.
Addressing this large-scale resource theft is not only about buying ships and providing tactical training, but also creating the conditions on land to strengthen the institutions and norms that Washington and others relied on during the Cold War to manage Soviet fishing. Though not core missions of the U.S. Coast Guard, these are certainly areas in which interagency partnerships could be leveraged and which are firmly within the mandates of implementing partners.
Aaron Delano-Johnson is an active-duty commander in the U.S. Coast Guard and an international affairs officer, with service across Latin America and the Caribbean.
Chris Bernotavicius is an active-duty commander in the U.S. Navy and a foreign area officer specializing in Latin America.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Navy, Coast Guard, Department of Defense, or Department of Homeland Security.