Cocaine Codfish: How the War on Drugs Can Inform the Fight against Illegal Fishing


In late 2022, the refrigerated carrier vessel Sun Flower 7 departed its homeport with a declared destination of the Federated States of Micronesia, claiming it would rendezvous with tuna-fishing vessels there and return their catch to mainland Asia. Unbeknownst to the crew, fisheries surveillance officers from the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority, utilizing commercial maritime domain awareness tools, identified actions by the carrier vessel that suggested it was thousands of miles east of its declared destination, engaging in illicit fishing activity inside the exclusive economic zone of the island nation of Kiribati. The vessel later changed course, backtracking across the Pacific towards Micronesia, before then proceeding to Thailand in order to sell 4,000 metric tons of tuna. 

But the vessel never got the chance. The Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority had notified their counterparts in Thailand and the vessel was refused entry. This was followed by an additional $150,000 fine leveled by South Korea, the vessel’s conscientious flag state. The result was an all-too-rare international success in the global fight against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. 

Up to one in five fish caught worldwide is the product of such contraband and predatory fishing practices, which continue to destabilize coastal states around the world. As a result, the world’s leading maritime services, and to a lesser extent law enforcement agencies, are taking a greater interest in enforcing fishing laws. In doing so, they can learn valuable lessons from the enforcement mission most familiar to the world’s leading maritime services — the 50-year-old war on drugs. These lessons include improving intelligence sharing, generating law enforcement interest in associated crimes, and broadening engagement with civil society.

The Maritime War on Drugs in Three Acts

The world’s navies and maritime services have always had a role in addressing smuggling, tax evasion, and irregular migration, not to mention other illicit activities from piracy to the slave trade. In the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy, along with interagency and international partners, began to take a significant role in maritime interdiction of narcotics in the 1970s and 1980s. During these years, the maritime space became a primary vector to smuggle marijuana and cocaine into North America and Europe. The evolution of this naval war on drugs can be presented in three acts: first, unilateral action by the United States; second, steps towards bilateral cooperation; and third, global partnerships.



For the first two decades of the drug war at sea, counternarcotics interdiction efforts were essentially unilateral operations conducted in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida Straits, Caribbean Sea, and less frequently the Pacific Ocean, all targeting large commercial vessels carrying narcotics directly to the United States. This period of unilateral action was followed by an increase in drug-fueled violence in South and Central America. 

The growth of narcotics trafficking organizations led to changes in the way drugs were smuggled in the maritime domain, prompting steps towards bilateral cooperation. Washington quickly set about negotiating dozens of bilateral maritime counternarcotics agreements in the 1990s, establishing procedures for boardings vessels, exchanging shipriders, hot pursuit of vessels into territorial seas, and overflight of national airspace for maritime patrol aircraft. Eventually 34 bilateral agreements were signed with partners in Latin America and the Caribbean that complemented interagency efforts to train and equip partner maritime services. All of this served to enable limited joint interdiction operations.

After 9/11, the U.S. government’s maritime interdiction efforts had to change with the times. As the “Global War on Terror” consumed more strategic resources, from ships to maritime patrol aircraft, more cooperation from global partners was necessary. In addition to direct coordination between command centers, Washington sought to increase U.S. law enforcement liaisons abroad. With embedded foreign liaison officers, like those from the 20 countries represented at Joint Interagency Task Force–South, along with regional leadership by nations such as Colombia, partner nations are now contributing to at least 60 percent of maritime interdictions over recent fiscal years.  

There are many valid criticisms against the broader war on drugs, but the success of the drug interdiction cycle is real and relevant. Through building trust, training and equipping maritime services, and cultivating partners committed to security, U.S. enforcement agencies have figured out an effective way to curb maritime smuggling. When illicit activity is detected at sea, the activity is monitored and queued for interdiction by the United States, allies, or partner nations. After interdiction, investigation and prosecution results contribute to future interdiction efforts. 

Lessons Learned

Illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing is a destabilizing and existential threat to coastal states from the Horn of Africa to those targeted by China’s distant water fleet in the South China Sea, not to mention the Galapagos Islands and the South Atlantic. This threat is already here, at scale, and there is not time for the piecemeal shift to a “whole of government” approach that marked the first two acts in the maritime war on drugs. The time to build stronger global partnerships is now. 

In the broadest terms, there are three measures that will help propel the fight against illegal fishing in the coming years: enhancing intelligence and information sharing, directing law enforcement attention toward associated crimes, and broadening engagement with civil society.

Intelligence and information sharing with partners is the single most important component in achieving global effects against illicit fishing. Despite heavy investment, it took decades to reach a point where counternarcotics cooperation began to work. Only after considerable training and equipping could Washington share timely intelligence and actionable information with partner nations that would be effectively used. 

One advantage in combatting illicit fishing on the high seas is that domestic prosecution is not a priority in the same way it is in the counternarcotics realm. This means it will be easier to share intelligence and information. The success of the Maritime Domain Awareness information sharing programs, from both government and non-government sources, offers a path forward. 

Information could be provided via standalone information-sharing agreements or holistic bilateral agreements that address all illicit activity at-sea. With decades of cooperation in the maritime counternarcotics space, security organizations need to recognize that traditional partners in that realm may not have authority and jurisdiction in the illegal fishing space. This call for expanding cooperation to non-traditional partner nation agencies. 

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing does not exist as a standalone crime. Associated crimes range from labor abuses aboard vessels at sea to corruption ashore. Then there is customs fraud, tax fraud, money laundering, human trafficking, environmental crimes, and even fraud on your local fish house menu. Associated crimes are often the best avenue for imposing cost on bad actors, from Al Capone’s sentencing for tax evasion to the use of conspiracy, money laundering, and financial sanctions by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

To better address illegal fishing, interest should be generated with law enforcement to address these associated crimes in the same manner as has been done in the war on drugs. This will facilitate disrupting networks, catching corruption, and addressing the failures of governance that allow illegal fishing to occur, rather than simply criminalizing fishermen or trying to set records in the amount of fish seized. 

2023 estimates of the global seafood trade range from $150–300 billion dollars, and it is projected to double in size by the end of this decade. This means there is ample incentive for transnational criminal organizations to operate within the industry. Given the global nature of this trade, and international nature of its associated crimes, there will always be a nexus with domestic law enforcement initiatives. For example, in December 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice sanctioned Pingtang Marine Enterprise and Dalian Ocean Fishing for human rights abuse and illicit fishing on their combined fleet of 157 distant water fishing vessels. Pingtang was subsequently delisted off the NASDAQ. Each law enforcement success, from a seizure by customs of a container of seafood to convictions for corrupt practices, serves to generate additional interest in prosecuting associated crimes. 

Unlike counternarcotics enforcement, which is principally a function of the state, civil society plays a prominent role in addressing illegal fishing. Non-governmental organizations, operating from the hyper-local to the global level, push policy reform and help educate the public. Sometimes they also help fill the void left by governments through maritime patrols and direct action against illegal fishing abusers.

Many examples of cooperation between law enforcement and civil society exist in the illegal fishing space. But some parts of government are leery of engaging with civil society while some sectors of civil society are not interested in working with state security services. As security services expand their role in the illegal fishing space, this leaves considerable room for increased engagement with civil society, beyond what has been seen in the realm of counternarcotics. Given the way the U.S. government has traditionally engaged with civil society and the private sector, relationship silos exist within the U.S. interagency and within embassy country teams. This makes it vital for security services to better understand the relationships and contributions of civil society groups that have traditionally partnered with diplomatic and development agencies. With finite resources to address a global challenge, both government and civil society should leverage their respective strengths to fight illegal fishing.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is a global problem, and, in a resource-constrained environment, there is no simple solution. By bringing in partners, better incentivizing law enforcement, and engaging civil society, the U.S. government can cast a wider and tighter net against those who seek to plunder the world’s oceans. 



Aaron Delano-Johnson is an active-duty officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. A ship captain and international affairs officer, he has served across Latin America and the Caribbean. 

The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jon-Paul Rios