IUU Fishing in the Developing World: A Growing Threat to Regional and Global Security

While IUU fishing is not a national security priority for developed nations, it is a top threat to many developing ones.

Guest written by Captain Timothy (Tim) Doorey, USN (Ret.)

Illegal, Unreported or Unregulated (IUU) fishing is primarily a law enforcement issue, and since the U.S. Navy is prohibited from conducting law enforcement activities, I had never been involved in — or paid much attention to — the problem of IUU fishing during my 28-year career as a Navy intelligence officer. Instead, my focus was primarily on nation-state threats. However, after I started my second career in 2009 teaching international officials the ways to counter transnational threats at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, I soon learned that IUU was of great concern to many developing countries around the world.

In July 2010, I conducted the first in a series of South Asian maritime security programs in Male, Maldives with senior Coast Guard, Navy and civilian maritime representatives from the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. We began the program by dividing the participants up by country and having them conduct a simple, yet valuable, risk assessment exercise to help them prioritize threats to their nations. In many of the debriefs, IUU fishing was listed among the top five threats to national security.

However, when it came time for the Sri Lankan debrief, the six senior Navy officers listed IUU as the top threat to their national security. Remember, this was only a year after the Sri Lankans had militarily defeated the Tamil Tigers or LTTE after three decades of a brutal civil war starting in 1983. The Sri Lankan Navy played a major role in that conflict, stopping the fanatical “Sea Tigers” or the LTTE Navy, from suicide attacks and arms smuggling. All six officers had spent their entire career fighting this militant terrorist group. Yet, only a year after the end of the conflict, the officers were saying IUU fishing was now their nation’s top national security threat. On closer examination, our South Asian colleagues’ concern about IUU fishing became clear.

The combined effects of resource scarcity and the scramble for fish protein, the pressures of globalization and environmental change, and growing populations make IUU fishing a global security issue.

Since 2010, I have conducted similar programs in Southeast Asia, specifically the Gulf of Thailand and Indonesia, as well as in Africa and Latin America. And each time I engage with officials, I hear the same concerns about IUU fishing. For example, Africa has thirty-seven coastal and island nations, and even its land-locked countries like Uganda and Malawi, are all experiencing a significant IUU fishing threat. Most countries in the world have limited ability to monitor and patrol their territorial waters (out to 12 nautical miles from the coast), much less their extensive Exclusive Economic Zones (out to 200 nautical miles). Even more, some of these IUU threats come from domestic artisanal fisherman and not just the mega trawlers from abroad.

Heeding the dire warnings sent by friends and allies around the world about the threat posed by IUU fishing, the Obama Administration belatedly created a Presidential Task Force on IUU Fishing in 2014, which later released its action plan to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud. It remains to be seen if the Trump Administration will continue this important work.

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.