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It is high time to take organized crime on the high seas seriously • Stimson Center

Thanks to modern technology and artificial intelligence, our vast planet – 70 percent of which is ocean – is getting smaller by the minute. Our ability to monitor human impacts on the ocean and better protect and manage its vast resources has grown exponentially over the past decade. And yet we are not applying that ability. While our 21st century skills can give us the critical information we need to do this work, our legal and policy tools are severely outdated. “Areas beyond national jurisdiction” remain a place where outlaws and organized criminal networks can thrive.

The high seas are one of the most dangerous places on earth – and there is no law or court that can dispense justice when a stateless fishing vessel is involved in gruesome crimes, including murder. Renowned journalist Ian Urbina has been reporting this story for years. His book and related project, titled Outlaw Ocean, have documented the enormous amount of criminal activity that takes place at sea, with no one for victims or their families to turn to for accountability. As Ian put it, the high seas are “too big to police, and in the absence of a clear international authority, these vast expanses of treacherous waters are the scene of rampant crime and exploitation.”

One of the most widespread forms of criminal activity is illegal fishing, including the sometimes inhumane treatment of crews of violating fishing vessels. It is estimated that one in five fish caught globally is through IUU fishing, worth at least US$36 billion. This is a conservative estimate; in today's market, this cost could be much higher. Security experts have called illegal fishing a “global scourge” and one of the greatest threats to ocean sustainability. It has devastating impacts on ocean ecosystems, depletes global fish stocks, threatens global food security, and undermines many fragile coastal economies and communities around the world.

Make no mistake: industrial fishing vessels operating in remote waters outside national jurisdictions are a convenient place for many other crimes – including human trafficking, forced labour, smuggling of illegal drugs and weapons, and piracy – due to a lack of transparency in the sector and weak legal and enforcement frameworks. The recent case of Adrianaa rusting fishing trawler that sank off the coast of Greece last June, killing hundreds of migrants on board, is a good example. The country's coast guard reportedly only observed the floundering vessel – which had engine trouble and was without food or water – but claimed it was powerless to take action because the ship was in international waters. And late last month, a Greek court dismissed the case against the ship's crew for the same reason – because the vessel was in an area outside the jurisdiction of national courts.

But there are bright spots. Artificial intelligence, as well as satellite and other remote sensing technologies, are abundant and can provide real-time information on any potentially illegal activity by industrial fishing vessels. And they are beginning to be deployed on a large scale. President Biden put IUU fishing on the U.S. global security radar by issuing a National Security Memorandum that orchestrated a whole-of-government approach to combat IUU fishing. The United States and some other countries have stepped up activities to raise awareness in the maritime domain and encourage the sharing of more information to help those countries that lose the most from illegal fishing, such as Pacific island nations. The U.S. Coast Guard works closely with an international nonprofit called Global Fishing Watch to promote better ocean governance through transparency. And organizations like the Stimson Center support these efforts by serving as the secretariat for the IUU Fishing Action Alliance, a group of countries (including the United States) and organizations committed to working together to combat IUU fishing.

The scale and scope of illegal fishing is becoming increasingly clear. The seas are in grave danger – more than 30 percent of the world's fish stocks are overfished, there are countless illegal fishing vessels using more forced labor than we know about, not to mention human trafficking, drug smuggling, arms trafficking and piracy. In addition to the threats to the food, economic and environmental security of developing coastal states, the lack of transparency in global seafood supply chains means that U.S. consumers are too often in the dark about where the fish they buy is caught, who owns the fishing vessels and what labor rights abuses might be occurring on the vessels and in the processing plants.

And yet there is still no concerted global effort to bring about justice. We watch as the seas are plundered and many innocent people pay the price. We have still not come together in a concerted way to bring about lasting change. Raising general awareness of these crimes is not enough. The fact that we know they are happening makes our inaction even more tragic. We must now redouble our efforts. We have the means. We have the capacity to seriously curb serious crime on fishing vessels in areas beyond national jurisdiction. What we need now is coordinated action. With serious global cooperation and leadership – including from the world's most prolific fishing nations like the United States, Europe and China, and multilateral organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization – we can bring law and order to the high seas.