Thunder Road: Outsourcing the Fight Against Illegal Fishing


Sometimes the problem no one admits to has the answer no one wants. This year’s chase by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society of the illegal fishing trawler Thunder highlighted the problem ever briefly in the news and among a few world leaders. The world’s population faces a quickly growing crisis of potentially irreversible magnitude that will affect the security of nations as well as the fundamental ability of people to survive.

Estimates on fish stock depletion range from extremely troublesome to practically catastrophic. A 2003 National Geographic article reported that only ten percent of all large fish remained in the sea (a decrease of 90 percent since 1950.) According to one report by the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), which monitors over 600 fish stocks, 80 percent are either overexploited or depleted while global demand for seafood continues to rise. Even the United States is impacted from overfished stocks. The World Wildlife Fund suggested that 53 percent of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion.

Two primary factors have driven depletion. The first is the rapid growth in the world’s population and the resultant demand for more food. The world’s population reached one billion in 1804 and two billion in 1927. Since 1974 when the population was four billion, another billion has been added approximately every dozen years. The second factor has been illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing in the millions of square miles of largely ungovernable ocean that cover most of the planet. It is, as New York Times investigative journalist Ian Urbina recently labeled it, the outlaw ocean.

The impact of illegal fishing by countries such as China, Russia, Spain, North Korea, and Taiwan, can be widespread. It can start with legitimate, local fishermen losing revenue and spread through the entire supply chain from small boat and parts manufacturers and continue on to processing plants. In some cases, such as that of Somalia in the past two decades, illegal fishing allegedly forced fishermen to turn to piracy. It also results in fewer fish and can increase the price of fish beyond the reasonable range of the average consumer.

Beyond the local level, depleted fisheries hurt national economies. A 2005 report by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development reviewed the economic impact of IUU fishing on 10 developing countries. The report estimated that $372 million was lost annually through illegal fishing in the exclusive economic zones of those countries representing nearly 20 percent of the total catch. Off the coast of sub-Saharan African nation of Guinea in 2001 alone, up to 60 percent of vessels sighted were illegal. Among five nations (Seychelles, Namibia, Mauritania, Gambia, and Comoros) illegal fishing diminished gross national product by 10–20 percent.

In an age of austerity, few nations are able to commit the resources in terms of manpower, platforms, or technologies to enforce international or national laws. The U.S. government did, in 2014, setting out 15 recommendations from the Presidential Task Force to combat IUU fishing, but these were largely procedural considerations with no apparent mechanism for platforms or manpower. Two recommendations had promise. One called for international capacity building but again included no real assets, and the final stage of implementing a strategy would not be complete until mid-2016 (nearly two years after the report). Another called for partnerships. The U.S. Coast Guard has a long history of capacity-building, but its resources are a drop in the ocean. There is, however, one opening in this latter recommendation:

Just as one federal agency alone cannot combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud, these issues cannot be addressed only by the federal or state governments. It is important that the federal agencies join forces and take strong steps in partnership with the non-federal entities such as harvesters, importers, dealers, retailers, processors, academia, and non-governmental organizations.

In 1999, the Somali Transitional National Government signed an agreement with the private security firm Hart-Nimrod to conduct fisheries enforcement with compensation derived from securing fishing licenses. While that effort quickly failed, the attempt planted a concept in the mind of another private security firm: Blackwater.

By 2008, Somali piracy was a very real and growing threat not only to fishermen but large commercial ships off the Horn of Africa. Shipping companies were slow to respond, preferring to pay nominal ransom fees, and navies patrolled the region but had no real authority or impetus to mount a concerted effort against pirates. Private security companies began to put armed teams on commercial ships (to date, no ship with armed guards has been captured by Somali pirates, though in recent years the threat has largely abated.) The firm formerly known as Blackwater identified the threat and — like several other companies — proposed putting ships to sea to protect client ships.

In a series of articles in 2007 and 2008, I suggested that if piracy grew and expanded beyond the Horn of Africa, private maritime security companies (PMSCs) were a logical response that might be used for other low-intensity maritime operations. These firms could be quickly called upon to meet emerging threats, provide ships, operate largely free from government restrictions and thus be tactically adaptable, have in situ law enforcement for legitimacy, and build new ships to better address the threat. Blackwater, for example, refurbished an old NOAA ship to escort merchant ships through the Gulf of Aden, but the plan fell apart when it failed to attract clients. But piracy wasn’t the real intended business model. Blackwater’s CEO hoped to do fisheries enforcement. “We can build a business model around enforcing a country’s fishing laws,” Erik Prince said in an interview:

We’d provide a boat like [the McArthur.] We’d take a fisheries officer or two from the host nation and we’d go out and enforce their laws and we’d get compensated by enforcing license fees and if there are repeat violators, you seize the boat. There’s impound fees to get the boat out. And we build a sustainable fisheries industry, which will put locals to work. It’s their water for 200 miles. … In terms of piracy or illegal fishing, I think by dollar volume there’s a lot more illegal fishing going on the world than there is piracy.

Prince was correct with one exception. It wouldn’t be PMSCs who would make fisheries enforcement a reality; it would be an environmental non-governmental organization bringing experience and a real fleet to bear on an issue.

If the United States or other countries are to address illegal fishing and identify non-governmental organizations as public–private sector partners, then one model may be the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. This organization, with fewer than 30 core paid staff and an annual budget of approximately $15 million (according to Global CTO for Sea Shepherd Omar Todd), has in recent years expanded its global operations and fleet of ships, all supported by impassioned volunteers.

Sea Shepherd has operated for several decades after its leadership split with Greenpeace, but came to the attention of the general public with the cable television program “Whale Wars.” This show chronicled months-long campaigns against Japanese whalers in the southern ocean. Their mantra is “direct action” that tries to prevent whalers from carrying out their mission — effectively it’s the NGO version of DoD’s Anti-Access / Area Denial. Their controversial tactics have included attempts to foul propellers, collisions (whether intentional or unintentional is perennially debated), and throwing rancid butter on the decks to spoil already-killed whales so that they can’t be sold at market. The campaigns have proved a capacity for adapting in tactics and platforms particularly as they added higher-speed craft to better overtake the slightly faster Japanese whalers. Two attempts were made to address this, first with the M/Y Ady Gil, lost in a still controversial incident, and second with the wave-piercing trimaran M/V Brigitte Bardot which proved to be insufficient in the harsh southern ocean.

Sea Shepherd may have finally hit on the right ship that offers speed, range, and durability. The organization recently laid the keel for its new Antarctic patrol vessel at the Dutch-owned Damen shipyard in Turkey representing the first time Sea Shepherd has constructed a purpose-built ship from the keel up, much like what several private maritime security companies sought to do. Unlike its previous ships, which were named for large donors who helped purchase the vessels (Bob Barker, Steve Irwin, etc.), the new ship is funded by a lottery. The Dutch Postcode Lottery has distributed nearly $5 billion to non-governmental organizations. Sea Shepherd has received approximately $1 million annually from the lottery, but in 2015 was one of nearly a hundred organizations competing for a “dream project.” Sea Shepherd won $9.4 million to build its dream ship.

Sea Shepherd remains a controversial organization; however, it has gained some growing state-sponsored legitimacy. In 2011, for example, the Pacific island nation of Palau entered into an agreement with Sea Shepherd to support anti-poaching efforts, an agreement later reversed by Palau when Japan promised to provide a vessel.

Since 2000, however, Sea Shepherd has provided resources to the Galapagos province of Ecuador. With insufficient resources to patrol the 27,000 square miles of water from illegal fishing and poaching, the Galapagos National Park Service has worked with Sea Shepherd to provide that coverage including the installation of Automatic Identification Systems (which allows shipborne transceivers on legitimate ships to be potentially distinguished from illegitimate ships). According to Omar Todd of Sea Shepherd, their vessel has conducted patrols with the Ecuadorian National Police on board to provide the in situ authority to make any arrest.

In January, Sea Shepherd concluded a 10,000-mile, 110-day chase of the illegal fishing trawler Thunder, which resulted in the October conviction of its captain and two crew members. Designated on Interpol’s Purple notice, the ship had been de-registered, abandoned, and scuttled. The crew requested assistance and Sea Shepherd members were able to board under maritime law, during which time they collected evidence of the estimated $60 million in illegal fishing and gave testimony at the trial.

Environmental NGOs, whether they be Sea Shepherd or other organizations yet to emerge, offer the same force multiplier in response to regional and global challenges — in this case fish depletion, which affects countries and eventually entire populations. Countries must be the first choice in providing an appropriate level of response. Absent that, they should explore opportunities to work with environmental NGOs or PMSCs by providing them the authority to act with governments to counter illegal fishing. Providing on-board law enforcement enables countries to minimize investment in labor while permitting an organization outside of bureaucratic restrictions to innovate.

Sea Shepherd has positive lessons worth emulating, but there are also risks inherent in its business model. First, due to the large percentage of volunteers, it does not have the labor rates and associated costs (shore-based housing, healthcare, etc.) integral to navy or coast guard infrastructure. Currently, the need to patrol the seas because of the number of illegal trawlers may exceed the number of volunteers available, particularly those with requisite skills such as chief engineers.

Second, security at sea will pose a risk. While coast guard platforms are armed, would environmental NGOs be provided flexibility if they are at risk of attack or response? Sea Shepherd has not experienced this, but Greenpeace has. In 2013, Greenpeace’s ship Arctic Sunrise was seized by Russian authorities and the multinational crew detained for two months. Although a Permanent Court of Arbitration required Russia to pay compensation to the Netherlands for damages to the ship, Russia simply refused. Should an unarmed environmental NGO be attacked by an illegal fishing vessel — even if captured on camera and livestreamed — the response is questionable.

Secretary of State John Kerry recently stated that “the responsibility of pursuing pirate ships cannot be left to environmental groups.” He’s correct in part because states can no longer do so alone, just as state navies were part of a triad of combating modern Somali piracy, along with shipping industry changes in Best Management Practices and the increased use of armed guards on ships.

Some states with resources are taking action. Indonesia, for example, has been capturing and sinking illegal foreign fishing vessels. Even the Puntland Maritime Police have recently seized Yemeni and Iranian vessels caught illegally fishing in Somali waters — a sensitive issue given how foreign fishing was one of the factors that led to Somali fishermen turning to piracy. Nevertheless, the oceans are too expansive for states alone to patrol and prosecute. States need a force multiplier. Authorizing an expanded role for private maritime security companies or environmental non-governmental organizations ought to be considered.

Just as suggesting private maritime security companies might assist nations in constabulary roles might be controversial, so too is recommending a role for environmental NGOs like Sea Shepherd or others that might develop in the coming years. But a more controversial position would be to maintain the status quo where there are insufficient resources to combat rising illegal fishing and diminishing global fish stocks.


Claude Berube is the author of the novel Syren’s Song (Naval Institute Press, November 2015) and co-editor of Maritime Private Security: Market Responses to Piracy, Terrorism and Waterborne Security Risks in the 21st century (Routledge, 2012).


Photo credit: Saberwyn