This year’s CHOW conference included a panel on “Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing,” moderated by Whitley Saumweber, director of the Stephenson Ocean Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). IUU fishing is considered one of the most significant threats to ocean health, and research has linked this practice to transnational organized criminal networks that also engage in human rights abuses, forced labor, tax evasion, and weapons and drug trafficking. With tools backed by a new wave of technological advances, stakeholders can employ traceability programs that counter IUU with data-based tracking systems, international IUU agreements, and an overall increase in transparency. As a major seafood market, the United States has a responsibility to lead these efforts to protect national consumers and influence global actors. This panel of experts encouraged us to think critically about solutions to help us achieve this goal.

To begin the panel, Saumweber presented the idea of redefining “security” in a time characterized by significant change. Climate, population, and geopolitical dynamics are all facets of our changing world that must be considered when addressing ocean viability. However, concepts of sustainability, resilience, and environmental justice are often missing from security solutions, and thus these solutions remain incomplete. How do states incorporate these concepts in our modern security conversation, and how does this lens apply to the ocean space? IUU represents one of the most direct intersections between national security and environmental sustainability.

The first panelist, Sally Yozell, fellow and senior director of the Environmental Security program at the Stimson Center, defined IUU fishing as a practice with many dangerous linkages that disproportionately prey on the resources of developing countries. Yozell argued that solutions must focus on increasing transparency in three key areas: supply chain, financial interests, and the vessels on the water. Approaches to confront each of these components revolve around increasing the accessibility of data to facilitate catch traceability and close governance loopholes to improve the use of that data. The EU’s catch documentation program and the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) provide foundational requirements for documentation, but we need to build on these programs using new tools that help verify fleet ownership and catch accountability across regions and jurisdictions. New technologies that use machine learning to interpolate radio signals from automatic identification systems (AIS) provide an important step in meeting these goals. However, a more effective approach would be a global mandate for the use and publication of vessel monitoring systems (VMS). Without continued programs to check IUU fishing, there will continue to be an increase in geopolitical inequities and unethical product consumption.

Following Yozell’s introduction to the importance of transparency and traceability, Johan Bergenas, director for public policy at Vulcan Inc., provided further context on the potential impact of data-driven innovation. Bergenas encouraged the audience to consider a bolder narrative when it comes to ocean health. His argument built on Saumweber’s introduction by further tying ocean health with a multitude of pressing global concerns, including food security, crime, and geopolitics. Reconceptualizing ocean health as an interconnected issue encourages large-scale solutions and maximizes the opportunity for strategic partnerships. Once we have established that premise, we can think about how data and innovation may be used as a support mechanism. Technological innovation is a formidable tool, but it is ill-advised to conceptualize these tools as a “silver bullet” solution without a proper governance context. Mr. Bergenas envisioned a future where we solidify what he referred to as an “ocean industrial complex,” where philanthropists, foundations, and innovators work together to yield coordinated support for ocean governance.

An additional panel member with experience in technology-supported tools, Peter Neil of the World Ocean Observatory, introduced a specific example of applied ocean technology. Neil presented an overview of the newly launched “Seafood.Works” software, which he described as an interoperable data sharing system to facilitate exchange between all stakeholders throughout the seafood supply chain. This tool is an example of how emerging tech can support multilateral governance systems.

Roberta Elias, deputy director of ocean policy at the World Wildlife Fund, closed the formal presentations by discussing mechanistic linkages between trackability and transparency efforts and governance. Elias returned to the previously mentioned SIMP program as a model for other major markets seeking to introduce catch documentation programs and highlighted how these programs can be complemented by industry driven initiatives such as the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability, which has brought together 70 companies controlling $35 billion in seafood production to discuss seafood traceability goals. Better coordinating state and industry initiatives continues to be a critical step for increasing seafood traceability.

IUU fishing undermines marine ecosystem conservation, sustainable fishing, and global socio-economic stability. As such, nations must continue to recognize IUU a threat to both national security and the environment. To combat these threats, the CHOW panel identified two facets of ocean security: comprehensive governance and applied technology. These strategies should be advanced concurrently, keeping in mind that technological programs are most effective when utilized within the greater context of governance and legal enforcement. The formidable threat of IUU will not be contained without the application of data-based transparency tools that are both implemented and enforced by recognized authorities.