Distant Water Fishing Fleets and Hybrid Warfare

Written by Natural Security Forum team

In 1572, the British Empire under Queen Elizabeth I commissioned the pirate Sir Francis Drake as a privateer to wage war on King Phillip II of Spain, blurring the line between private and state actors. Today, some countries and their distant water fishing (DWF) fleets are similarly using the private sector to exercise power on the world’s oceans causing geostrategic instability.

DWF fleets often receive state subsidies or are otherwise supported by their state of origin. This makes incidents concerning DWF fleets potential flashpoints for armed conflict. For example, in October 2016, a Chinese fishing vessel caught illegally fishing in South Korean waters rammed and sank a South Korean coastguard speedboat, prompting the South Korean coastguard to later use machine guns against aggressive Chinese fishing vessels in South Korean waters.

Both Indian and Pakistani fishermen have been detained by the other country for illegal fishing, exacerbating already contentious geopolitical relations. And in March last year, a Chinese trawler was caught illegally fishing halfway across the world in Argentinian waters. Once discovered, the Chinese trawler attempted to ram an Argentinian coast guard vessel and was subsequently sunk.

The support of these fleets by nation-states — or the refusal to disavow or prosecute fleets when they engage in criminal behavior — lends tacit approval from the supporting state to these ostensibly private sector actions. The blurring of public and private actors in a militarized context qualifies the use of DWF fleets today as a tool of hybrid warfare.

The simple truth is that DWF fleets have the capability to cause serious geopolitical harm. In addition to their ability to engage in violent action against state actors such as coast guards and navies, the resources that these fleets illicitly extract have a profound effect on their victims’ economies as well. Indonesia, for example, loses US$3 billion to US$5 billion annually (equivalent to up to 6% of the government’s tax revenue) to illegal fishing, much of it done by DWF fleets.

With this capacity to exert coercive and economic force, often to achieve aims beyond those of private gain for the DWF fleet company, DWF fleets make for impressive weapons of hybrid war.

Several states have acted to counteract this danger. Indonesia has adopted a strategy of deterrence, blowing up seized fishing vessels, and South Korea has granted its coastguard increased latitude in dealing with foreign fishing vessels, authorizing the use of firearms and cannons if threatened. Increasingly militarized responses are yet another indicator of how DWF fleets are increasingly seen as weapons of war, and not just of profit.

These problems are likely to escalate as our oceans are becoming less resource-rich every year, driving DWF fleets to travel farther and infringe further upon the territorial integrity of more states. In a podcast with the Natural Security Forum, former NATO supreme allied commander Admiral James G. Stavridis identified DWF fleets as a tool of maritime hybrid warfare, which he believes to be the coming chapter of maritime security threats.

More in depth research, analysis and strategic communications focused on DWF fleets as hybrid warfare is needed and the Natural Security Forum will execute this work in 2017 and 2018.

The views and opinions expressed on the Natural Security Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Stimson Center.

Stimson Environmental Security

Environmental issues meet national security

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade