Two ships at sea (U.S. Coast Guard)
The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley meets up with a ship from China's Coast Guard after a successful mission to apprehend an illegal fishing boat in June. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Do you know if the fish on your plate was legally caught? Illegal fishing costs local economies billions and devastates ecosystems. The United States is part of several partnerships to stop illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

On June 16, a U.S. Coast Guard plane, supported by partners from Canada, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, spotted a Chinese-flagged vessel engaged in what looked like drift netting, an illegal fishing technique in which giant, loose nets spool out for miles, indiscriminately snagging fish and any other marine life in their reach.

But 750 nautical miles from Hokkaido, Japan, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley was on the scene. A multinational group from the U.S. and China investigated the Chinese fishing vessel Run Da, confirmed that the ship used a banned drift net, boarded the boat, and transferred the ship to China’s Coast Guard for prosecution.

Every year millions of tons of sharks, dolphins, whales, turtles and other vulnerable species are caught in drift nets and die. To prevent this, the United Nations issued a drift-net moratorium more than two decades ago.

In addition to the partnerships to enforce laws on the high seas, many countries participate in “shiprider” programs, in which their own law enforcement officers can travel on U.S. vessels and prosecute illegal activities in their countries’ exclusive economic zones.

People boarding ship from dinghy (U.S. Coast Guard)
A multinational team boards a fishing vessel, the Run Da, suspected of illegal drift-net fishing in the North Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Stopping illegal fishing is vital. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third of the world’s fish are dangerously overfished, putting entire species of fish at risk. Fish make up a huge portion of humanity’s diet, and directly or indirectly support the livelihood of up to 12 percent of the world’s families.

New tools

People uncovering massive fishing net on ship (U.S. Coast Guard)
U.S. and China Coast Guard members uncover a 9-kilometer drift net on board the fishing vessel. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The U.S. and international partners possess technology and are developing new tools to ensure global fishing is legal and sustainable. Satellite data can be used to spot unlawful fishing practices.

New tracking systems offer tools to track the full path of seafood — from the fisher to the dinner plate. This ensures international buyers that fish is legally caught, and can open up economic opportunity.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is partnering with multinational fishery organizations to develop these systems for Southeast Asia.

Through USAID Oceans, a collaboration between USAID and the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center, the U.S. is working with fishers to help build tech that works for the Pacific. In the Philippines, new USAID-supported ship transponders — ship trackers — connect to an app to allow fishers to enter data at sea and communicate with their families onshore.

Arcelio Fetizanan Jr., whose company partnered with USAID to develop the transponders, said that for many years, this tracking system primarily benefited governments and nongovernmental organizations, “with far fewer direct and tangible benefits for the fishers themselves.” Now, he said, the transponder technology supports fishers, their fisheries and their families.