Event Recap: Beneath the Waves: A Deeper Look at the National Security Threats of Illicit Fishing in “Seaspiracy”
On April 7, the American Security Project (ASP), in collaboration with Sea Shepherd, hosted an event on illicit fishing and the threat it presents to national and global security. Panelists from the event included Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT), ASP Board Member ADM William Fallon, USN (Ret.), Sea Shepherd CEO Alex Cornelissen and Director of Campaigns Peter Hammarstedt, and Seaspiracy directors Ali and Lucy Tabrizi. ASP COO Andrew Holland moderated the conversation.
Congressman Welch opened the discussion by highlighting the importance of raising awareness of how the health of the sea, climate change, and security are interconnected. He compared today’s oceans to the Wild West, where wildlife was once hunted indiscriminately without regard for the environmental consequences.
“We are threatening species, and it needs to stop. Not only because it is wanton and wrong, but because these species are essential to the health of our oceans.”
– Admiral William Fallon.
The congressman went on to laud Seaspiracy’s value as a much-needed tool to educate the general public on harmful fishing practices.
While answering questions from the audience, Congressman Welch called for the U.S. government to address IUU fishing as a threat to both the environment and national security. He alluded to the role that ASP founding board members then–Senators Chuck Hagel and John Kerry have played as both committed environmentalists and national security experts in addressing challenges like illicit fishing. Moderator Andrew Holland agreed with the Congressman, adding:
“The quality of the environment is no less a security challenge than a bomber or a battleship.”
– Andrew Holland
Congressman Welch commented that the U.S. is not ready for a complete moratorium on heavy gear industrial commercial fishing due to a lack of awareness of the issue. He also noted that there is support in the Biden administration for ratifying UNCLOS, but the Senate is not yet ready to do so.
Following Congressman Welch’s opening comments, the five panelists gave brief introductions and opening statements. Admiral Fallon described two adverse trends he noted during his more than four decades at sea: the accumulation of trash in the oceans and the disappearance of marine life. He spoke about maritime security concerns—including overexploitation, criminal activity, corruption, and intimidation—and described how the depletion of marine resources forces states to venture out farther and to harder to reach locations in search of fish.
Peter Hammarstedt commended Seaspiracy for its efforts to bring public awareness to the issue of illicit fishing and emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships in securing the stability of the seas. Alex Cornelissen shared a story of an IUU fishing vessel that Sea Shepherd pursued for 110 days before the vessel’s captain sank his own ship, highlighting the role that Sea Shepherd plays in supporting resource-scarce governments in policing their waters. Ali Tabrizi described the systematic abuses humans have perpetrated on the seas, and Lucy Tabrizi stated that the security of the oceans is on the verge of crisis.
In response to a participant’s question about using technology to police illicit fishing, the panelists spoke to technology’s benefits and its limitations. Ali Tabrizi described initiatives to track IUU fishing vessels using satellite data and artificial intelligence. Mr. Hammarstedt spoke about how Sea Shepherd has implemented Automatic Identification Systems on ships in the Galapagos and emphasized the importance of “lifting the veil of secrecy on fishing vessels” to prevent illegal behaviors. Mr. Cornelissen noted that technology is not a silver bullet for IUU fishing: so-called dark fleets circumvent tracking technologies, and if states cannot make intelligence actionable, tracking technology is not effective.
“Technology is a force amplifier. It can make us more effective at sea, but it can’t replace traditional enforcement or policing.”
– Alex Cornelissen
To address an audience question about the U.S. Coast Guard’s capacity for combatting illicit fishing, Admiral Fallon discussed how the U.S. Coast Guard has limited resources and is often outnumbered by illicit fishing fleets. He also mentioned that resource-poor states face multiple challenges in policing illicit fishing: some governments are unable to police their waters, while others actively abet criminal activities on the seas. Admiral Fallon noted the importance of emphasizing maritime domain awareness, promoting cooperation between countries, and the U.S. ratifying UNCLOS in bolstering illicit-fishing-enforcement efforts.
The panelists from Sea Shepherd commented on the U.S. government’s successes in supporting illicit fishing policing efforts in national parks but also offered avenues for the U.S. to broaden its work, including expanding its domestic vessel inspections and continuing to commit funding to combat illicit fishing as transnational organized crime.
In response to a question about whether fisheries disputes could escalate into full-blown conflict, Admiral Fallon spoke about Chinese fishing vessels in the South China Sea that have attempted to demonstrate China’s claims to sovereignty and the potential for illicit fishing to undermine stability in the region.
Moderator Andrew Holland asked the panelists from Sea Shepherd to comment on whether Sea Shepherd operates in states where governments actively facilitate illicit fishing. Mr. Cornelissen and Mr. Hammarstedt spoke on how resource-poor countries often establish “fish-for-cash” barter agreements and open their waters to wealthier nations. Since foreign vessels do not offload domestically, domestic governments do not benefit economically and are unable to monitor for illegal fishing activity. This is where Sea Shepherd plays an important role in helping partner countries reach and inspect foreign vessels.
“Sea Shepherd brings eyes to the ocean.”
– Alex Cornelissen
To conclude the conversation, Andrew Holland asked Ali and Lucy Tabrizi how they planned to continue their work in the wake of Seaspiracy’s successful release. The Seaspiracy directors said they hoped to release information on their website, www.seaspiracy.org, about topics their film was unable to cover and to continue pursuing issues at the nexus of environmental and social challenges.
Watch the full video
You can find out more about Sea Shepherd and Seaspiracy here:
Watch Seaspiracy on Netflix here.
Twitter and Instagram: @seaspiracy
Additional Resources from the American Security Project:
Chinese IUU Fishing: A Global Security Threat Multiplier
The Law of the Sea Needs U.S. Legitimacy
China’s War on the Law of the Sea Treaty and Implications for the U.S.
The United States Must Sign and Ratify the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea
Law of the Sea Treaty in Focus at Arctic Seminar
Key National Security and Business Experts Support Ratification of Law of the Sea