A foreign takeover on land would garner immediate attention and outcry, but we should be just as alarmed by the national security threats that repeatedly take place out of sight on our oceans — threats to maritime boundaries, national waters and global marine resources.

What happens beyond the horizon can be out of sight and out of mind for most citizens, but I can tell you from my tenure as Secretary of the Navy and my experiences on the water, the “invisible” national security threat of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and China’s role in exacerbating the problem, is real, and must not be ignored.

For bad actors, IUU fishing can be a low-risk, high-reward activity, especially on the high seas, where a fragmented legal framework and lack of effective enforcement allow it to thrive. It can include fishing without authorization inside a country’s maritime boundary, ignoring catch limits, operating in closed areas, and fishing with prohibited gear or for prohibited fish or wildlife. These illicit activities threaten national security and marine resources, which we depend upon for global food security. On top of violating countries’ national waters and pillaging fish stocks, IUU fishing is associated with organized crime, including drug and weapons trafficking. Human rights abuses and forced labor of men, women, and children on fishing vessels and in processing industries are common. 

China’s distant-water fishing fleets are of particular concern because their predatory fishing activities are unmatched in their sophistication, scale and harm. I’ve seen this firsthand in Palau, watching surveillance footage of several smaller Chinese fishing boats violating the nation’s shark sanctuary and territorial waters — scooping up huge amounts of fish from this protected area and then taking them to a large Chinese factory ship lurking just outside the boundary of Palau’s national waters. Included in this catch were scores of sharks — the reason the shark sanctuary was established in the first place. These sharks were killed only for their fins for shark fin soup, and their bodies were dumped back into the ocean.

China ranks worst on the Global Illegal Fishing Index as most likely to engage in IUU fishing. China deploys its distant-water fishing vessels around the world, at times using them as a paramilitary fleet in the South China Sea. This “pseudo-navy” is used to claim disputed territories and Chinese-constructed artificial islands; conduct illegal fishing operations in marine protected areas; and exploit unregulated fish stocks with huge armadas of more than 300 boats off Ecuador (in the irreplaceable and protected Galápagos Islands), Peru and Chile. Additionally, China is making significant investments in developing countries’ ports and infrastructure and setting up maritime operations centers, thereby expanding its influence and circumventing these countries’ fishing laws and regulations. These maritime operation centers also provide access to ports and military installations that can be occupied by Chinese militia fleets.

I’ve seen firsthand when illicit vessels turn off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders as they sail in and out of countries’ national waters to avoid detection, which is a sure signal of illegal activity. AIS provides location and identity data about vessels at sea. Knowing the identity and movements of vessels increases U.S. maritime domain awareness, which is crucial to fight IUU fishing and many other security threats. One way to improve our own monitoring of potential IUU fishing and other national security threats in our waters is to require that all fishing vessels 15 meters and longer carry and continuously transmit AIS while in U.S. national waters. 

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While serving as Secretary of the Navy, I met with numerous heads of state and other senior government officials from Africa to South America to the Pacific islands who said flatly that IUU fishing was pillaging their waters, decimating their economies, and threatening their national security. They told me that the unrelenting threat and impacts of IUU fishing were even more concerning than the threat of piracy. Many of these nations have small navies and coast guards and cannot adequately patrol or monitor their waters. Collaboration among fisheries, maritime and law enforcement agencies in most countries is virtually nonexistent. China is aware of these weaknesses, viewing them as opportunities to target these countries without repercussions. 

To combat the threat of IUU fishing and bad actors taking advantage of coastal nations, I led an effort to set up maritime operation centers, offering trainings and equipment like radars to better address invisible threats at sea. We helped nations develop maritime strategies and break down the barriers of information sharing. The U.S. must continue to prioritize these efforts, because as these problems continue to grow, other countries and allies will lose control under China’s aggressive influence.

The U.S. has an immense stake in addressing IUU fishing not only from a national security standpoint, but also because we are the largest importer of seafood in the world. The U.S. imports up to 85% of the seafood we consume, and the International Trade Commission estimates that the U.S. imported $2.4 billion of seafood products derived from IUU fishing in 2019 alone. We cannot inadvertently support the same national security threats we are trying to combat at sea by allowing products of IUU fishing and human rights abuses to end up on our plates.

Requiring proof of legal fishing practices for seafood can drive change globally by cutting off market access for IUU fished products and those produced using forced labor and other human rights abuses. We should implement policies to mandate continued vessel tracking, dramatically strengthen import controls, and partner with the European Union and other like-minded nations to combat IUU fishing through initiatives such as intelligence sharing, capacity building and training.

I feel it’s my duty to bring this “invisible” national security threat to light, especially for citizens unaware of what happens beyond the horizon. We need the U.S. government to fight IUU fishing with the attention and resources it requires — especially given China’s growing and hostile influence.