When most Americans think about seafood, they don’t associate this healthy source of protein with global conflict. But in the future, access to seafood may likely to cause heated international disputes and threaten U.S. security interests much like competition over other critical natural resources, such as oil and water. The vast majority of the wild-caught fish we buy in grocery stores or order in restaurants comes from fishing grounds thousands of miles away. The dirty little secret about that fish is that up to 30 percent of it very well may be caught illegally, U.S. consumers have no way to know it.

The supply chain for fish caught in the wild is long with few tools to trace fish all the way through. In 2016, the U.S. government described a far too common practice of “fish laundering” in which legal and illegal fish catches are comingled on ships in the ocean to evade detection. According to the study, “[a]n estimated 95 percent of IUU [Illegal, Unreported, or Unregulated] tuna fishing activities in the EEZs and high seas adjacent to Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and 12 smaller Pacific Islands, for example, are conducted by licensed vessels that fish beyond their quotas or authorized areas and then transfer the illegal portion of their catch to other vessels at sea.” Unfortunately, eradicating illegal fishing is getting more difficult as its common abuse of labor practices and human rights is making it easier to do.

Globally, the high demand for seafood makes fish a highly valuable commodity—so high that competition for fish can be a contributing cause of regional instability in places like Africa and the South China Sea. The United States as one of the two largest seafood markets (along with the European Union) in the world drives this demand, and therefore must play a role in bringing transparency to the supply chain. Fisheries crime and fraud is rampant—it is a global “business” that is estimated to be worth billions annually. Combatting this challenge is crucial for both securing sustainable fisheries and supporting the legal seafood trade that provides economic and food security for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Illegal fishing puts both at risk.

According to a study published by Oceana in 2016, one in five seafood samples tested worldwide was mislabeled. “Legitimate” fishing businesses can fish illegally because of lax rules and enforcement and little accountability in the extended supply chains for fish resources.  Illegitimate fishing businesses are very difficult to detect, which makes it harder to bring to justice—it is a big ocean and much of it lies beyond the jurisdiction of any nation.

There are several distinct types of illegal fishing—including fish caught in areas where it is banned or beyond management limits, as well as fish that is caught by vessels that refuse to abide by international fishing regimes, and fish that is caught but not reported. And all these types of illegal fishing practices deplete the supply of fish around the world, which in turn drives up prices; this only increases ill-gotten profit, with little risk of being detected, much less arrested.

The problem is actually much more dangerous than just stealing fish from the world’s ocean and selling it to unwitting consumers in the United States, Europe, and Japan. A groundbreaking 2016 intelligence community assessment estimated that illegal fishing activities are fueled by the same transnational organized criminal networks whose evil acts span the gamut of human rights abuses, forced labor, tax evasion, and weapons and drug trafficking. For example, illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing vessels have been implicated in the smuggling and illegal sale of weapons in hotspots like the Gulf of Aden, a region that is critical to U.S. security.  Similarly, both flagged and stateless fishing vessels have been found to use forced laborers whose working conditions are so poor that they are considered a human rights violation.  Moreover, competition for fish resources is increasingly a driver of heightened tensions, and instability, and not just among small nations but also between superpowers like China and Japan in the South China Sea, and even between the United States and Mexico over the prized Gulf of Mexico red snapper.

As a partial solution to this problem, the U.S. Congress is considering new legislation to ensure that the U.S. government is doing everything it can to harmonize its work in combatting this threat. In a show of bipartisan solidarity, Democratic Senator Chris Coons and Republican Senator Roger Wicker introduced a bill called the “Maritime Safe Act ” in late 2018 requiring the entire government to work together to use diplomatic, military, development, and economic tools to apprehend and stop these criminals in their tracks. The legislation builds on a bipartisan legacy of work over the past several administrations that has resulted in the development of a new regulatory regime for imported fish.

The bill does four things:

  1. Increases the U.S. government’s engagement with other governments and international institutions on illegal fishing so that fisheries are better managed and governed worldwide
  2. Increases the activities of U.S. intelligence, military, and law enforcement agencies to bring illegal fishing operations to justice through cooperation with other nations on training and interdiction
  3. Increases the existing requirements for traceability of fish products coming into the United States so that U.S. consumers (both businesses and individuals) can know where the fish they are buying was caught and by whom, and that it is legal
  4. Directs the agencies to work to require globally the use of modern technology on all fishing vessels that will permit both real-time maritime domain awareness and tracking of fishing vessels and information sharing among enforcement agencies worldwide

While the legislation was introduced too late to advance in 2018, when Congress returns in 2019 this bill will likely remain a high priority for Congress. In addition to its motivated bipartisan sponsors, the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and the Coast Guard showed these issues are a priority when they convened a hearing titled Fish Fights: An Examination of Conflicts Over Ocean Resources this September. Senators from both parties participated in questioning and echoed their support for finding solutions to the management and enforcement gaps in the maritime domain. Furthermore, they have read the intelligence assessment and are watching as tensions over fishing are rising in global hotspots like the Horn of Africa and the South China Sea. It is clear that they want to ensure that the U.S. government will get ahead of this issue so that conflicts that impact U.S. security and economy can be avoided.

One aspect of this legislation that will surely get more attention in the 116th Congress is the question of how the U.S. government can have a greater impact on the human trafficking and poor working conditions, labor abuses, and other violent crimes in the international fishing industry. Fish products that are caught by slave laborers are far more common than we think—and U.S. consumers would not want to foster this practice by purchasing those products. U.S. fishing businesses also should not have to compete in the marketplace with such products—there needs to be a level playing field for all fisheries products sold in the United States. This is an area in which the current legislation could be strengthened in the future. National subsidies’ role in supporting IUU fishing and the ways in which future trade agreements could be used to crack down on this practice are also up for consideration. In the meantime, the Maritime Safe Act highlights the strong bipartisan interest in addressing the challenge of illegal fishing and its implications for national and global security.