Author: Johan Bergenas
At the State Department’s “Our Ocean” conference this week, environmentalists need to engage with the security community.This week, Secretary of State John Kerry is gathering world leaders in Washington, D.C., for a major conference on protecting the oceans. Included on the program are key issues such as ocean pollution, sustainable fishing and protection of marine parks.
This is a strong biodiversity and conservation agenda, but notably absent is how these traditional environmental challenges are a threat to U.S. and global security. Illegal fishing — one of the most important drivers of ecological catastrophe — has become inextricably linked with a variety of illicit behaviors, including transnational organized crime. By themselves, conservationists do not have the resources and experience to take on these challenges. If they want to make genuine progress on the issues they’re grappling with this week, world environmental leaders must think more broadly about the causes and possible solutions to the problems they’re trying to rein in — and that means reaching out to the security community to directly address these threats.
Environmental issues are linked to what we think of as “security” threats in three important ways. First, fishing vessels themselves are often directly connected to transnational organized crime, such as trafficking of drugs, arms and persons. For example, fishing vessels are implicated in the trafficking of cocaine from Latin America to the U.S. In the Mediterranean, Hamas uses fishermen to smuggle arms into Gaza. In March, the Royal Australian Navy intercepted a fishing vessel off the coast of Oman with approximately $2 million worth of arms hidden under fishing nets. It was believed that the “catch” — seized under authorities mandated by a U.N. arms embargo against Somalia where Al Shabaab is located — originated from Iran.
Fishing vessels have also been used to execute terrorist attacks. In 2008, men from Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant Islamic organization based in Pakistan, hijacked a trawler in the Indian Ocean and entered India by sea to avoid detection. They then went on to implement the Mumbai terror attack that killed over 150 people.
Terrorism and transnational organized crime are priorities for U.S. national security and the convergence between those challenges and fishing vessels need greater attention from the U.S. national security community to prevent a serious issue from becoming a crisis.
Second, illegal fishing is on the front lines of global maritime territorial disputes and nations are already using military force to fend off illegal fishers. Indonesia has begun blowing up fishing vessels illegally entering its fishing waters seeking to send a message of deterrence to encroaching vessels, particularly those from China. In August this year, the Malaysian government announced it would follow suit.
Chinese fishing boats are particularly aggressive in their global pursuit of fish. Only a few months ago, Argentina sank a Chinese vessel illegally fishing in its exclusive economic zone.
Tensions caused by illegal Chinese fishing are unlikely to wane any time soon as China is in dire need of fish to feed its growing population. As global fish stocks have seen dramatic decreases, Chinese consumption rates have increased 6 percent annually on average since 1990. The Chinese fishing fleet is a major driver of some remarkable statistics, including that 1 out of every 5 fish is caught illegally, representing an illicit industry worth upward of $23 billion per year.
At the same time as shots are being fired over fishing rights, international rulings of who can fish where are not being followed. During the summer, an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines against China over disputed fishing rights in the South China Sea. Beijing is defying the court ruling, saying it has the right to establish an air defense zone to control the fishing waters.
In short, the prospect of nations going to war over fishing waters is a real and immediate threat.
Third, the collapse of fisheries — often because of illegal fishing — is driving fishermen into transnational organized crime. As the world’s oceans are emptied of fish, fishermen, particularly in developing parts of the world, need a new source of income (there are over 50 million fishermen in the world and an estimated 880 million people directly or indirectly depend on fishing for their livelihood). Outside the Horn of Africa, in response to overfishing and depleted stocks, Somali fishermen turned to piracy. Partly because these waters represent a critical global trading lane, in response, the international community spent about $1.3 billion dollars in 2015 alone on operations to manage that serious issue.
While illegal fishing and the convergence between fishing vessels and transnational organized crimes and terrorism is evolving as a threat to international peace and security, these issues remain largely outside the U.S. national security purview. This is a mistake: Not only are they profoundly important to global security, but the security community has solutions that could help make progress on the problems.
Global weapons of mass destruction nonproliferation efforts offer a template of how to do so. In 2003, President George W. Bush announced the Proliferation Security Initiative, which focused on preventing the spread of WMD. PSI is a voluntary effort under which countries agreed to share information and interdict vessels that are believed to be carrying WMD proliferation sensitive materials.
As a sign of its success, 105 countries have signed up and President Barack Obama made it an important element of his own nonproliferation agenda. The United Nations Security Council also codified parts of the initiative into international law when passing a resolution in 2004 on WMD nonproliferation.
The world needs a PSI-like structure for illegal fishing and fishing vessels participating in transnational organized crime. Greater intelligence sharing among countries and transnational interdiction cooperation would go a long way to deter illegal fishing and fishing vessels that engage in illicit trade.
Kerry can highlight this during this week’s conference, and the next U.S. president should lead the way to include illegal fishing and other environmental crimes in the U.S. National Security Strategy. This week’s international gathering is a perfect opportunity to start the conversation about a more robust and global response to illegal fishing and the convergence between fishing vessels and transnational organized crime. The United States can lead on turning the tide against these maritime crimes and prevent our oceans from being the world’s largest crime scene.