Fishing in the National Defense Authorization: Unpacking Maritime SAFE Act

The Senate version of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes the bipartisan Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement (Maritime SAFE) Act, a bill designed to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) worldwide. The NDAA is the annual measure that authorizes programs and expenditures for the Department of Defense. If passed, the Maritime SAFE Act would advance a “whole of government” strategy to combat IUU fishing. The act addresses the problem from multiple angles, with solutions rooted in diplomacy, law enforcement, technology, transparency, and international capacity-building. It would identify and concentrate efforts in geographic “priority areas” where IUU fishing is unusually prevalent.

IUU fishing accounts for between 20 percent and 30 percent of global catch and costs legal fishers and governments between $15.5 billion and $36.4 billion per year. Revenue from the practice finances criminal networks, which engage in arms dealing, drug running, human trafficking, and terrorism. IUU fishing also undermines sustainable fisheries management, a concern given that one-third of the global population relies on fish for protein and that 90 percent of global fish stocks are either fully exploited or overexploited. Effectively combating IUU fishing would improve global food security, international stability, and marine ecosystem health.

Q1: What would the Maritime SAFE Act do?

A1: Broadly, the Maritime SAFE Act seeks to curtail the global practice of IUU fishing and to crack down on seafood industry human rights violations, like the use of forced labor on fishing vessels. It would do so by expanding diplomatic and military mission sets to include combating IUU fishing.

In more specific terms, the bill seeks to address IUU fishing in six ways:

  • It asks the state department to prioritize combating IUU fishing in relevant foreign missions.
  • It authorizes the Coast Guard, the State and Commerce Departments (via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to combat IUU fishing through existing enforcement mechanisms and by building capacity in partner countries abroad through initiatives like shiprider agreements and the Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership Program.
  • It incorporates exercises designed to combat IUU fishing into defense readiness programs, including joint exercises with allies and partners.
  • It establishes a standing interagency working group to combat IUU fishing, chaired by representatives from the Coast Guard, the State Department, and NOAA, on a rotating basis, and including members from twelve federal agencies and five white house offices.
  • It requires the secretary of state and NOAA administrator to submit to congress a report on human trafficking in the U.S. seafood supply chain.
  • It raises awareness of and improves seafood transparency and traceability programs abroad.

Q2: Why is a bill on fishing in the National Defense Authorization Act?

A: First and foremost, the Maritime SAFE Act is in the NDAA because IUU fishing is well established as a national security risk and its co-sponsors recognize the need to better leverage our security services if we are to effectively meet this challenge. The security risks presented by IUU fishing can be both acute and strategic in nature. The use of fishing vessels by China as a maritime militia to bully foreign boats in the South China Sea and by East African pirates to threaten tanker traffic are examples of direct threats.

But IUU fishing also threatens security indirectly by undermining sustainable management of already stressed seafood stocks, by corrupting legal markets, and by stifling opportunity for economic development in developing coastal states. Finally, there is evidence that states have begun deploying IUU fishing as a soft power tool in the global competition for resources. That resource competition has sparked instability as well.

Q3: How does the Maritime SAFE Act build on existing statutory and regulatory programs?

A3 : The Maritime SAFE Act builds on the recently implemented Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), which establishes a traceability program for seafood being imported into the United States. SIMP was implemented under authorities granted by the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), which prohibits the importation of illegally caught seafood. The United States has the best-managed fisheries in the world largely due to the effectiveness of the MSA and its mandates; however, we still import the vast majority of seafood consumed in this country and are the largest importer of seafood in the world. This market power means that programs like SIMP have the potential to drastically improve global supply chains. However, such programs are not enough on their own. Interdiction and enforcement early in the supply chain are also critical. This is where the Maritime SAFE Act can better enable us to assist other nations, where most of the world’s seafood is sourced.

Q4: Where should fisheries policy go from here?

A: It remains to be seen what version of the Maritime SAFE Act will come out of the House and Senate conferencing process. But if not now, then soon, some key gaps in fisheries security need to be addressed.

First, the U.S. defense and intelligence services will need a clear mandate to combat IUU fishing in order to effectively tackle the challenge. Additional authorities are welcome, but without a mandate, new programs of work may be hard to implement. Environmental security threats like IUU fishing are recent additions to the security dialogue, and there needs to be clarity that combating IUU should be a core military and intelligence competency.

Second, the U.S. government should continue to highlight the links between IUU fishing and human rights violations. It should also ensure that authorities that combat goods produced via forced labor are aligned with those that restrict illegal seafood imports like the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP).

Finally, SIMP should be expanded to include all imported seafood, rather than the 40 percent of imports it currently regulates. Expanded coverage would both increase SIMP’s capacity to prohibit IUU imports and improve the U.S. market’s power to influence supply chains.

Dr. Whitley Saumweber is director of the Stephenson Ocean Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Whitley Saumweber
Director, Stephenson Ocean Security Project, and Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative