THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (VIRTUAL)
MODERATOR: Okay. Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s on-the-record briefing on “U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Operations and Deterring Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing.” My name is Jen McAndrew, and I am the moderator today. First, I will introduce our briefer and then I will give the ground rules.
Our briefer today is the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schultz, who will give a strategic outlook on the Coast Guard’s Pacific operations and partnerships with Pacific Rim nations whose economies and natural resources are threatened by the People’s Republic of China-flagged vessels’ disregard for the rule of law and responsible fishing practices. We greatly appreciate Admiral Schultz for giving his time today.
And now for the ground rules: This briefing is on the record. We will post the transcript of this briefing later today on our website, which is fpc.state.gov. Our briefer will give remarks and then we will open it up for Q&A. If you have a question, please open the participant box and virtually raise your hand. At that time, we will unmute you so that you can ask your question. Please take the time now, if you have not already done so, to rename your Zoom profile with your full name and media outlet.
And with that, I will pass it over to Admiral Schultz.
ADM SCHULTZ: All righty. Well, greetings and thank you to our moderator, Jen McAndrew. Really appreciate you doing this today, Jen. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the United States Coast Guard and our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region of the world.
For over 230 years, the United States Coast Guard, we’ve promoted free and open use of the global maritime commerce, and we’ve helped likeminded partners and allies strengthen their capacity to uphold and assert their own sovereignty. Wherever we sail, that iconic angled orange racing and blue racing stripes that you see on the bow of every Coast Guard cutter since 1967 serves as a global symbol for maritime security and governance.
The Coast Guard has an enduring role in the Pacific region that dates back more than 150 years. And one of our key focus areas with Pacific partners has been illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, what we call IUU fishing. IUU fishing is a criminal enterprise that weakens the global rules-based order and threatens the sovereignty and economic security of every nation with a maritime nexus. Fish is an essential protein source today for more than 40 percent of the global population, and IUU fishing undermines the ability of maritime states to achieve their own domestic food security, which can destabilize fragile economies.
It’s also symptomatic of a larger security vulnerability, particularly those who have limited capacity to patrol their maritime domain or apprehend and prosecute criminal actors. IUU fishing often happens in concert with other illicit behaviors, including the atrocities of human trafficking and forced labor, as well as the smuggling of other illegal substances.
We become particularly concerned when IUU is perpetrated or abetted by state actors that may use government resources to support unlawful fishing operations, encourage or assist their commercial fishing fleets to violate sovereign waters and exclusive economic zones, obtain dubious licensing and other certifications through illegal arrangements with corrupt local officials, or even intimidate legitimate local fishermen using armed vessels and unsafe navigation practices.
Despite the enormous challenge, I have great hope that we can make a difference working together with our partners, because as we know, international cooperation works. For more than a quarter century, 25 years, six nations which contribute to the enforcement efforts of Operation North Pacific Guard have confronted fishing fleets that failed to adhere to international rules and regulations. Our collective efforts have been overwhelmingly successful, practically eliminating high seas driftnet fishing in the North Pacific Ocean, and that collaboration continues today.
Just this month, Coast Guard Cutter Douglas Munro, a 378-foot high-endurance cutter, completed a North Pacific Guard patrol where they conducted at-sea inspections of 11 fishing vessels from four different nations. Across the Pacific, we are working with our likeminded partners. Last month, the National Security Cutter Kimball participated in the multi-country Operation Nasse throughout Oceania and conducted high-seas patrols near American Samoa and Fiji. And National Security Cutter Bertholf, a sister ship, worked alongside the Ecuadorian navy to monitor the behavior of nearly 300 reported Chinese fishing vessels operating on the outskirts of Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone in the vicinity of the Galapagos Marine Reserve.
IUU actors operate in the shadows, but working together as a broad network of partners sharing information, we can spotlight such bad actors, root out their illicit behavior, and eradicate this threat to our collective prosperity. World leaders and regional maritime security agencies must not allow the normalization of illegal behavior that erodes responsible maritime governance. The U.S. Coast Guard will make best use of our collective efforts with our partners to protect sovereignty, support cooperative enforcement of international laws, and drive stability, legitimacy, and order.
But our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific goes beyond just countering IUU fishing. Last year, I stated publicly in many forums that the Coast Guard was doubling down on our commitment to the Oceania region, and today I’m renewing that commitment. I recently signed the regional engagement plan for Oceania that aligns Coast Guard activities in the region with foreign policy and national security goals and sets a vision for the Coast Guard to expand our permanent presence and effectiveness in the region through expeditionary capabilities.
In September, the first of three fast-response cutters arrived in Guam. These highly capable platforms replaced the aging Island-class patrol boats and will provide significantly increased capability and range to counter illegal activity, conduct search and rescue, and strengthen regional partnerships. And we continue the deployment of national security cutters to the Pacific in support of combatant commanders to provide unique authorities and capabilities that complement our Department of Defense forces.
Last year, National Security Cutter Stratton patrolled in the Western Pacific in support of the United States – excuse me, the United Nations Security Council resolution enforcement against illicit ship-to-ship transfers that violate sanctions against the DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This year, National Security Cutter Munro participated in RIMPAC, the Rim of the Pacific, the largest global naval exercise with nine other nations to foster and sustain cooperative relationships critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and the security of the world’s oceans. These deployments conducting maritime defense and security operations with the United States Indo-Pacific Command promote regional security cooperation, maintain and strengthen maritime partnerships, and enhance security.
And lastly, our long-term commitment to capacity building in the Indo-Pacific spans the range of Coast Guard expertise, including the transferring of excess defense articles, participating in multinational security exercises, developing bilateral search-and-rescue and law enforcement agreements, hosting ship riders, and deploying training teams to build proficiency.
We are proud to be operating with our Pacific partners to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, where individual sovereignty is paramount and should always be protected. Now I look forward to your questions. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Admiral Schultz. We will now begin the Q&A. You are welcome to raise your hand in the participant box if you have a question. We can also take written questions in the chat box. The first question is from Owen Churchill from SCMP. Owen, we will now unmute you.
QUESTION: Thank you, Jen. And thank you, Admiral Schultz, for that. Most appreciated. Just a couple of questions, if I can, on China. I was just curious to hear whether you see – when it comes to IUU fishing by Chinese vessels, whether you see this as a matter of negligence on the part of China, or do you see any evidence of active efforts to either subsidize or coordinate these fishing efforts, whether directly by the Chinese Government or through – indirectly through state-owned enterprises and such?
And then secondly, just interested to hear a little bit more about any specific steps the Coast Guard is taking to counter Chinese vessels, IUU fishing activities in particular. Thank you.
ADM SCHULTZ: Yeah, Owen, thanks for the question. You bled out a little bit and I lost I think the operative phrase, but I think I got the general gist of what you’re asking for. Let me first and foremost say this Coast Guard strategic outlook on IUU fishing is not an anti-strategy document. I mean, there’s a piece in there, I think it’s recognized across the globe that the largest distant-water fleet in the world is operated by the Chinese. Arguably there’s upwards of 4,600 Chinese flag vessels; there’s another 15-, 16,000 of maybe opaque flags stating here that show characteristics of Chinese fleet. And it’s a large fleet. We’ve recently seen them operating here off of – and routinely off of South America here. I mentioned off the Galapagos Marine Reserve, about 350 vessels.
So I would say this. I would say yeah, I believe it’s fairly common knowledge that China, state-owned enterprise, subsidized some of the distant-water China fishing fleets, China, large-scale, pelagic fishing. I think that’s a known. I think what we’re looking at is we’re looking for responsible flag state behavior from any flag state. If you’re the largest flag state here of fishing, distant-water fishing, there’s a role there. When you’re operating 9,000 miles from China off of the Galapagos, you’re a long way from home. I haven’t seen a Chinese enforcement vessel in this hemisphere anytime recently. I think you need to look at that. I think when you look at the transparency, or the lack of transparency around flag states off the western coast of Africa, the eastern coast of Africa, ships – boats with Chinese characteristics that now are showing a Ghana flag or Senegalese flag, those things require scrutiny.
And what we’re looking to do – I think there’s a maritime domain awareness element of this. How do we paint the picture of what activities are going on across the world’s oceans to a greater degree than we are today? That’s a partnership between the Coast Guard, other law enforcement and maritime fisheries agencies. I think there’s a partnership with academia, and folks that are – more expertise than us in big data analytics, because we have to see the problem. Then I think it’s like-minded nations getting together and talking the talk about the problem. And I think with that behavior, we’ll start to see different behaviors.
We had a national security cutter, the Bertholf, operate for a few short days out there with the Ecuadorian navy in the vicinity of that 350-ship fleet off the Galapagos. And we saw some changed behavior with the fleet; we identified about a dozen or so vessels that were showing some characteristics that may have been inconsistent with sort of their stated behavior – AIS, automatic identification system, transponders not depicting their location, maybe turned off, or maybe some spoofing where a ship’s location and the transponder didn’t correlate.
So we turned that information over to the Ecuadorian navy. We’re not indicating that Chinese fishing off of Latin America, South America is illegal. But when it’s in excess of the agreements, when it’s – moves into a host nation’s seas without permission, then we start to have some problems. And we do see indicators across the globe where some of those behaviors are going on, and I think it would disingenuous to say some of that doesn’t point back to ships that are of Chinese flag or maybe opaquely showing a different flag.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you, Admiral. I don’t see any other hands raised. Owen, did you have a follow-up to that?
QUESTION: I – not immediately, but I may come back with another one shortly. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Okay. Any other questions, please raise your hand in the participant field, or submit your question in the chat box. We’ll give it another minute. If we don’t have any other questions, we’ll conclude the briefing.
ADM SCHULTZ: Amy (ph), just while you’re waiting for questions, one thing – why does the U.S. care about this? We are the largest single country market for fish and fish products, and we’re the third largest wild seafood producer, fifth largest exporter of fish and products. We’re looking for a level playing field for our U.S. fishermen. And that starts by knowing what fish come into the market and where. About a third of the fish that come into the United States through imports we think potentially link back to possibly IUU harvesting. So there’s a domestic piece for U.S. fishermen. We hold them to standards; we want them to compete on a level field.
And then there’s a global piece. I think what we see here is these small, particularly Pacific Island nations – that’s today’s focus – have very little capacity and capability to protect their own waters, and we’re trying to up the game on that and help them out. And we do that well through capacity building, through relationships, defense articles, regional partnerships.
Let me pause there.
MODERATOR: Okay. I’ll do one more call for questions from our participants. Please raise your hand in the participant field. Owen, I’ll come back to you.
QUESTION: Thank you, Jen. Yeah, a follow-up. I was looking through the report from last month and noted that it talked about the – some evidence of People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia using coercive behavior to threaten or coerce fishing – legitimate fishing activities of other sovereign states. And I wondered if you had any specific comments on – would that – would countering those efforts, would that be something within the Coast Guard’s remit, or is that a matter for the U.S. Navy? What would be the government’s approach to that?
ADM SCHULTZ: Well, I would say this, all, and I think first and foremost I’m biased. I’m a 38-year Coast Guardsman. But I’ll tell you I think the world’s best coast guards aren’t used as vehicles to run down disputed – fishermen in disputed areas. And I think we see some of the aggressive behaviors that the China coast guard, which used to be under civilian leadership, has now been repositioned as of 2018 under People’s Military Police, which reports to the triple-C Central Communist China government. We see the Maritime Militia as sort of a third arm of the maritime forces, the PLA and Navy, the China Coast Guard, this Maritime Militia.
That type of antagonistic, coercive behavior we very much find as problematic. We had two national security cutters in the Indo-Pacific in 2019, Stratton and Bertholf – I alluded to that – sort of 5-month deployments heel to toe, so about a 10-month period. Did a lot of different things. They did some sanctions work against DPRK. I mentioned that. They did capacity building with the Philippines, Malaysians, the Indonesians.
I mean, at the end of the day, are we looking to get a Coast Guard cutter in conflict with a Chinese coast guard vessel? I don’t believe that’s the case, but we’re looking to build up the regional capacity, the ASEAN nations, their naval forces, their maritime forces. How do we strengthen them? How do we work on their skills? We’re doubling down with the Vietnamese that are growing their coast guard fivefold. The Indonesians are building out their – BAKAMLA, their organization, the Malaysians. They’re all very focused on their maritime security forces, and we’ve got a lot of capacity building going on.
So I think it’s working with the regional partners to sort of work on the front lines in that part of the world. I mean, if behaviors get draconianly worse, potentially you see something like that, but I think right now it’s about – it’s elevating people’s knowledge of IUU fishing, it’s building capacity, it’s creating regional forums. And some of that work was on its own, some of that can be amplified, supported by the Coast Guard. I think that’s how we get after the problem on a global scale, and then you call out bad behavior. And I think what we’ve seen is when bad behavior is called out, sometimes it changes those behaviors.
MODERATOR: Okay, thank you, sir. I will now take a questions from the chat box. This comes from Sarah Nacman, Eagle Broadcasting Corporation in the Philippines. Her question is: “What is the U.S. stance on the recent Chinese-Philippines fishing dispute? What actions is U.S. planning to take against China?”
ADM SCHULTZ: Well, thanks for that question. I think it’s a bit of a spin on the last question there. Again, the U.S. Government, we’re sort of – we’re focused on regional collaboration, partnerships, strengthening the – matter of fact, the Philippine Coast Guard, I visited with them here about a year or so ago, and they’re a coast guard that’s up around 12,000, 13,000 strong with a vision to grow to 35,000. Now, they’re at a navy that’s I think less than 14,000. They very much see the coast guard as a key enabler of their sovereign maritime interests, and we’re doing capacity building with them. We’re doing training with them. If you left me there, my uniform looks just like the Philippine coast guard uniform. They’re very much modeled after us as sort of what they want to be in terms of capabilities and authorities. They’ve got tremendous support coming in from Japan coast guard in terms of giving them some patrol vessels. They’re working with the French on offshore patrol vessels, acquiring a couple of those for them in – I think they got the recent one or one’s coming shortly.
So I think it’s more through that multilateral approach where we’re helping those regional actors, versus the Coast Guard – United States Coast Guard coming over there and getting the – in the middle of a Philippine-China coast guard dispute over an island location, a fishing location. Ours would be to enable and bolster their capacity, their sort of fortitude to press back against, in this case, if it’s an aggressive China, press back against. But again, I don’t want to make this anti-China; it’s not the case at all. It’s just about protecting sovereign interests and sovereign nations’ right to protect their interest, their exclusive economic zones, and IUU fishing is a direct threat to that. And that’s a global problem. It’s a global maritime governance problem. That’s where – the lens we’re looking through on this, Amy.
MODERATOR: Okay, I’ll do one last call for questions. You can raise your hand or submit in the chat box. We’ll give it just 30 seconds here. There’s a “Thank you” from Sarah Nacman in the Philippines. Thank you, sir, for answering that question.
Okay, if there are no other questions, I’ll turn it over to the admiral to make any closing remarks, and then we’ll conclude it there.
ADM SCHULTZ: Yeah, no, I would just say in closing thanks for the opportunity to chat with you today. Jen, thanks for leading this. I think I said Amy; my apologies. But thanks for pulling this together.
What this is all about is the Coast Guard has been doing fisheries enforcement, domestic fisheries (inaudible), international IUU fishery work. We’re upping our game. We think we have a strong standing here as a maritime agency on the international front, so we’re bringing likeminded partners. We have a seat at IMO, the International Maritime Organization that meets in London here multiple times a year through the subcommittees, and what we’re trying to do is frame a coherent strategy, bring in likeminded interest, draw attention to this global problem. Ninety-plus percent of all the world’s fisheries are what they call overfished or overexploited, overextended. And that’s a problem, particularly when 40 percent of the world’s population derives its protein from the sea.
So this is about good governance, model maritime code, free and open seas, and we’re excited about being at the table with likeminded partners and look forward to the work going forward. Again, thanks, Jen, for your help today.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Admiral Schultz. That concludes today’s briefing. The transcript will be posted within 24 hours on our website. Thank you to all who participated and good afternoon.