The Buzz

End Games Part II: Combatting the Scourge of Illegal Fishing

In the role-playing game of Dungeons and Dragons, players create characters based on a variety of skill levels and races.  They band together for adventures and campaigns seeking new weapons and magic or technologies that can help them in their quest.  The game’s maps may indicate impassable areas.  Some characters will fade away to make way for new players.  Some adventures will require close cooperation while non-player characters can offer advice or issue challenges.  The adventures are limited only by the imagination of the Dungeon Master and the players.  The same is true of solving the global problems of illegal and overfishing where enforced boundaries, identifying and networking new technologies, and public-private partnerships will be required.

Environmental organizations may advocate for sweeping changes such as banning commercial fishing for a period.  Such a radical effort would be met with political resistance based on the immediate economic impact to the legitimate fishing industry and the high demand for marine protein.  The most acceptable step to curtailing overfishing is identifying and stopping illegal poachers.  According to Daniel Schaeffer, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard currently the Senior Officer of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project with The Pew Charitable Trusts has argued that to defeat illegal fishing, “you have to disincentivize them and you have to change their behavior.” 

If there is a bright light – or, rather, a constellation of lights – to addressing this issue, it is the level of activity among think tanks, non-governmental organizations, governmental agencies, and others to analyze and provide recommendations.  One example is Secure Oceans, a major report published in September by the Stimson Center’s Johan Bergenas and Ariella Knight.  Currently comprised of 46 governments and organizations, the State Department’s Safe Ocean Network was established in 2015 to share knowledge, technology, information, and data.   Its laudable goal is to end illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing by 2020.

Emerging technologies may well help achieve that goal.  More commercial fishing vessels are monitored by commercial surveillance satellites or business activities tracked by non-profit organizations.  “GPS is the key to determining what fish are caught, where and when,” according to Matt Merighi, Executive Director of Blue Water Metrics.  “This traceability is how the world can combat illegal fishing.”  But traceability isn’t only bout catching illegal vessels, it’s about rewarding legitimate fishermen.  “GPS readings could also be used by fishermen to prove to skeptics that they are playing by the rules.”   However, the same technologies that are enabling governments and NGOs to track illegal poachers can well be employed by the same illicit networks that are being chased.

Sanctuaries are presumably established to marine life.   However, marine sanctuaries – particularly those near smaller nations with few assets – can serve as illegal fishing grounds.  Without appropriate assets such as surveillance aircraft or patrol boats, enforcement is unlikely. In the Galapagos Island Marine Reserve, for example approximately 300,000 sharks are taken annually by poachers.   Even larger countries face this challenge.  Earlier this year, President Barack Obama built upon his predecessor George Bush’s established of a marine national monument off Hawaii encompassing more than half a million square miles.  In September, he established nearly 5,000 square miles off New England.   Nor is the U.S. alone in this effort.  For example, in 2014, the Pacific island nation of Kiribati created a large sanctuary off its own coast.

Creating such sanctuaries to minimize overfishing and enforcing those boundaries are often at odds due to the space and lack of resources.  Regardless of the size of the country, coast guard forces can be underfunded, undermanned, and under-resourced organization given their wide array of duties.  In 2015, for example, the U.S. Coast Guard conducted over 5,900 fisheries boardings and 69 boardings of foreign vessels to enforce IUU fishing.   The cost to catch and prosecute illegal poaches can be in the millions or far exceed the value of the vessel in question.  “Sanctuaries have become the place where illegal fishermen go to catch fish,” says Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.  “What’s the point of having sanctuaries without enforcement?   In the Galapagos Island Marine Reserve, about 300,000 sharks are taken annually.”

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