Biden Signs Memorandum Addressing Illegal Fishing Practices

On June 27th, President Joe Biden signed a National Security Memorandum to address illegal, unreported, and unregulated (I.U.U.) fishing practices. This is part of a pledge by U.S. officials to introduce policies against illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s growing influence. Several countries in the region contend that China’s vessels frequently violate their 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones, causing environmental and economic damage. The memorandum will help these countries take action against alleged violations.

A White House statement outlines the memorandum’s approach. First, the United States will form an alliance with Canada and the United Kingdom to “take urgent action to improve the monitoring, control, and surveillance” of illegal fishing. Additional measures include issuing a “proposed rule to enhance and strengthen [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s] ability to address I.U.U. fishing activities and combat forced labor in the seafood supply chain.”

The entirety of the White House’s strategy will be released by the end of July in the “National Five-Year Strategy for Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing (2022-2026)” and will prioritize working with the seafood industry, academia, non-governmental stakeholders, and other governments such as Ecuador, Panama, Senegal, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

In a briefing to Reuters, senior U.S. administration officials stated that the memorandum isn’t targeted at any specific country, but named the People’s Republic of China as one of the largest violators nonetheless. “The P.R.C. is a leading contributor to I.U.U. fishing worldwide, and has impeded progress on the development of measures to combat I.U.U. fishing and overfishing in international organizations,” one official said. “The P.R.C. has a responsibility to uphold these commitments as a flag state and actively monitor and correct… fishing fleet activities in other countries’ waters.”

It’s difficult to tell if these statements are made out of genuine concern for the impact of illegal fishing or out of agitation at China’s attempt at dominance in the Indo-Pacific. Regardless, the memorandum will provide victimized nations with greater means to respond to violations. Centering the voices of victims is an important first step in solving any injustice, so specifically naming countries such as Taiwan, which ranks sixth in the world on the I.U.U. Fishing Index, shows a commitment to providing these countries with the resources to resolve their issues. As long as the U.S.’s actions remain focused on ending illegal fishing practices, instead of combatting China as has been implied, it could make a major difference in diminishing the effects of I.U.U. fishing. When serious environmental and economic consequences are imminent, global influence isn’t what’s at stake, and the U.S.’s efforts should reflect this.

China plays such a prominent role in discussions of I.U.U. fishing because over 300 complaints have been filed against the nation’s illegal activities in the South China Sea. This includes an event in November 2021 in which the Philippines abandoned a supply mission after three Chinese coast guard vessels blocked and fired water cannons on resupply boats. More recently, the Philippines claimed that Chinese coast guard vessels shadowed Philippine boats on a resupply mission. Both of these incidents occurred at the Second Thomas Shoal, which is claimed by both the Philippines and China and is located 105 nautical miles off the Philippines’ Palawan province. Nations like the Philippines must resist China’s attempts at asserting world dominance, and the memorandum will provide them with the resources to do so.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, illegal fishing has outpaced piracy as the top global maritime security threat and risks intensifying tensions between countries competing for over-exploited fishing stocks. It’s vital that efforts like those promised in the memorandum are taken to mitigate the damages caused by I.U.U. fishing. At the same time, it’s equally important that the U.S. doesn’t contribute to the intensification of tensions the Coast Guard has foreseen. To achieve this balance, attacking China can’t be the U.S.’s main motivation in ending illegal fishing. I.U.U. fishing can be devastating to many people’s economic livelihoods and can cause significant harm to the environment. Saving people and the environment from harm should be more than sufficient reason to stand against illegal fishing practices, and future actions taken by the U.S. should be for that cause.