The global ocean in the context of national security

By Rear Admiral Jonathan White, United States Navy (Retired)
President and CEO, Consortium for Ocean Leadership

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the fate of life on our planet is inextricably tied to the fate of our ocean. The ocean is critical to our well-being, and to keep this precious resource healthy and productive, we must first understand it — its physical and chemical processes, the stressors it responds to, its complex ecosystems, and the interactions with the life it supports.

This understanding is even more important because the ocean is changing in many ways not seen before in human history, which presents new challenges and opportunities to our nation as well as to our neighbors around the globe. The key to this understanding — which will lead to appropriate, evidence-based action to ensure our ocean’s health (and therefore our survival) — is ocean science.

Ocean science extends beyond the scientific and Naval communities, playing a role in our security at all levels — national, homeland, food, and economic.

From my 32 years as an active duty in the Navy (which culminated in my three-year appointment as Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy), I can unequivocally tell you that ocean science has provided our nation with a tangible military advantage on, under, and above the sea for decades. In my current role as president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, I can, equally unequivocally, tell you that the value of ocean science extends beyond the scientific and Naval communities, playing a role in our security at all levels — national, homeland, food, and economic.

Investments in ocean science are of paramount importance given the ongoing, unprecedented change to our Earth system, especially now, when global population growth, particularly in coastal areas, stresses our ocean environment more and more every day. Unfortunately, these changes are happening at a time of increasing uncertainty regarding federal investment in ocean science. To advance our ocean knowledge that will enable necessary actions, we must use all available resources and reinvigorate public-private relationships and ventures. I believe there is much the philanthropic, NGO, and industry sectors can do (in collaboration with federal agencies, both in the United States and abroad) to ensure we grow, rather than lapse, our knowledge of the ocean.

One area where the philanthropic, NGO, and industry sectors can have a significant impact is IUU fishing, which has far-reaching security, human rights, and management implications. IUU fishing occurs when pirate fishers catch fish in violation of national laws or international agreements and treaties. There are clear links between IUU fishing and other transnational criminal activity [1], specifically human, drug, and arms trafficking [2]; smuggling; and terrorism [3].

Rescued slave laborers report horrific conditions, including beheadings [4], shootings, and tossing of sick shipmates overboard. Of 50 former slaves interviewed [5], 29 reported seeing another trafficked worker killed. Do you think this sad story merely affects a far corner of the globe, and do you imagine you can’t do anything about it? Well, you’d be wrong on both counts.

First, IUU fishing is a massive enterprise that corresponds to our growing seafood appetite worldwide. Fish provide more than 3 billion people with nearly 20 percent of their average per capita consumption of animal protein [6], with demands only expected to increase in the coming decades. The issue extends far beyond a few handfuls of fish discretely making their way into the legal supply chain. Illegally harvested fish are estimated to represent 20 percent of the worldwide catch [7], exceeding an annual value of US $23 billion.

Second, this illegal practice leads to national, homeland, food, and economic instability around the world. It’s not a problem that starts and ends in an isolated region of the world. The 2004 al-Qaida terrorist bombings in Spain have been linked to IUU activities [8]. As the Arab Spring and recent events in Syria [9] illustrate, food instability, whether terrestrial or marine, is a catalyst for conflict that leads to mass migrations, political upheaval, and general instability. The practice also has drastic economic impacts. IUU fishers distort legal markets and unfairly compete with law-abiding fishers and seafood industries, undermining the 260 million legal fisheries jobs worldwide [10]. And if law-abiding fishers lose their jobs, IUU fishing can further push them to piracy for survival [11]. Finally, properly managing fisheries is critical if we are to have a healthy ocean with adequate fish stocks. With 90 percent of the world’s fisheries fully exploited, overexploited, or collapsed, this natural resource is already teetering on the brink [12]. With one-fifth of total global fisheries production coming from IUU fishing [13], managers cannot make fisheries management plans based on accurate stock numbers, which results in even more overfishing and overexploitation.

Fortunately, there are steps we can take to address this problem and to help policymakers, law enforcement agents, and scientists in combating this global scourge. During this time of fiscal uncertainty, the public sector will be looking for increased opportunities for collaboration with the philanthropic community. How can you most effectively help solve this global issue? In the list below, I identify key challenges facing the ocean, opportunities for philanthropic or individual engagement, and the direct impacts that will result.

Problem #1: The ocean is vast, so even if we pinpoint where IUU fishing is occurring, it will still be nearly impossible to prevent it.

Solution A: Better monitor and observe our ocean. Partner with groups that use and deploy new ocean sensors (or update old ones) to incorporate surveillance technologies that give these devices a secondary enforcement mission as more data are collected.

Result A: This approach results in two outcomes to address IUU fishing: improved predictions and better enforcement capabilities. An increase in data collection enhances maritime domain awareness, giving us an idea of where prime target stocks are (and will be) located. This will lead to better enforcement by allowing agents to monitor valued stocks and keep pirate fishers from operating in those regions, thus stopping the problem before it even begins. Another benefit of deploying more sensors is that we will obtain more data points on our ocean processes, which will lead to improvements in other arenas like weather forecasting and disaster response.

Solution B: Create a pilot project to improve data sharing from multiple sources, both public and private, to ensure all resources are being used as effectively as possible.

Result B: Such a project will enhance data collection, planning, and execution to coordinate and exercise response and mitigation opportunities. Additionally, it would ensure effective use of resources (e.g., money won’t be spent collecting redundant data).

Solution C: Ensure compliance with the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Enforcement Act of 2015,14 which will advance efforts to keep IUU fish from entering the U.S. market, and support new measures taken by Congress and the administration to stop IUU fishing. Civil society can engage on this issue through constituents contacting U.S. senators and representatives, educating them on the issue, and affirming the importance of the issue. Individuals and organizations can also provide input in response to Federal Register solicitations [15].

Result C: IUU fish will be kept out of the U.S. market.

Problem #2: Seafood fraud, where seafood is mislabeled for an economic gain, is a common problem.

An investigation by Oceana found that approximately one-third of all seafood tested in the United States from 2010 to 2015 was mislabeled [16]. IUU fishing and seafood fraud, while separate issues, overlap when a species is intentionally mislabeled to hide IUU activity. Fish need to be traceable along the supply chain, from hook to plate, to keep this from happening.

Solution A: Partner with groups that are working to improve traceability from the moment a fish is caught. Build consumer demand for groceries and restaurants to sell only traceable seafood.

Solution B: Apply ongoing research and technology associated with marine genomics to enable rapid sampling and subspecies identification that will indicate if seafood is from a sustainable, safe, and legal source.

Result A/B: Reduced demand for nontraceable fish will result in supporting legal fisheries while simultaneously combating IUU fishing.

My final suggestion for the philanthropic community is one that applies to IUU fishing but is also a broader, more effective approach for any number of issues in our tight fiscal environment. Cooperative institute models, which are partnerships between research organizations (academic and nonprofits) and line offices within a federal agency, have proven to be an effective means to do more with limited resources. They create long-term collaborations between scientists across the public and private sectors and help train and educate the scientific workforce through the creation of fellowships. Collaborations such as these will be critical to maintaining our national, homeland, food, and economic security.

There are many ways to embrace ocean science to mitigate security risk in the United States and abroad. With limited federal dollars, collaboration and cooperation across the ocean science and technology communities will be critical to our ability to understand and respond to challenges and opportunities. IUU fishing isn’t the only problem that our ocean faces, but steps taken to address this will help solve some broader issues as well. In an increasingly connected world, IUU fishing in the far corners of the globe has real impacts to our country here and now. There are real safety, economic, and ecological consequences of waiting to take action. Together, let’s move forward to keep our ocean healthy and productive, and to ensure the survival of life– including human life–as we know it on our planet.


1. U.S. Department of State, “Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing,” accessed Mar. 21, 2017,

2. Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and UNICEF, Broken Promises Shattered Dreams: A Profile of Child Trafficking in the Lao PDR, accessed Mar. 21, 2017, https://www.unicef. org/media/files/BrokenPromisesFULLREPORT.pdf.

3. U.N. Security Council, “Letter Dated 12 July 2013 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 751 (1992) and 1907 (2009) Concerning Somalia and Eritrea Addressed to the President of the Security Council,”

4. Urbana, Ian, “‘Sea Slaves’: The Human Misery that Feeds Pets and Livestock,” New York Times, July 27, 2015.

5. Ibid.

6. FAO, State of World Fisheries.

7. Bergenas, Johan and Ariella Knight, Secure Oceans: Collaborative Policy and Technology Recommendations for the World’s Largest Crime Scene (Stimson, Sept. 2016),

8. Bergenas, John and Ariella Knight, “How Illegal Fishing Threatens Development and Security,” World Politics Review, Jan. 30, 2015,

9. Lybbert, Travis J. and Heather R. Morgan, “Lessons from the Arab Spring: Food Security and Stability in the Middle East and North Africa,” in Food Security and Sociopolitical Stability, ed. Christopher B. Barrett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

10. Lydia C. L. Teh and U. R. Sumaila, “Contribution of Marine Fisheries to Worldwide Employment,” Fish and Fisheries 14 (Mar. 2013): 77–88, doi:10.1111/j.1467–2979.2011.00450.

11. Bearak, Max, “Somali Pirates Just Hijacked a Commercial Ship for the First Time in Five Years,” The Washington Post, Mar. 14, 2017.

12. Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, “Wild Seafood,” accessed Mar. 21, 2017,

13. Ibid.

14. Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Enforcement Act of 2015, Pub. L. №114–81, 114th Cong., Nov. 5, 2015,

15. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Recommendations of the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud,” Fed. Reg. 79 (Dec.18, 2014): 75536,–29628/recommendations-of-the-presidential-task-forceon-combating-illegal-unreported-and-unregulated.

16. Oceana, One Name, One Fish: Why Seafood Names Matter, accessed Mar. 21, 2017,