Blake Herzinger is a private-sector maritime security advisor assisting the U.S. Pacific Fleet in implementation and execution of the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative and Pacific Command-wide maritime security efforts.  He served in the United States Navy as an intelligence officer in Singapore, Japan, Italy, and exotic Jacksonville, Florida.  His writing has appeared in Proceedings, CIMSEC and The Diplomat.  He can be found on Twitter @BDHerzinger.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 

Title:  Assessment of the Threat to Southeast Asia Posed by Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported Fishing

Date Originally Written:  September 24, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  November 27, 2017.

Summary:  Regional conflict brews in Southeast Asia as states vie for access to fish stocks and, increasingly, rely on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUUF) to meet national requirements.  IUUF risks the collapse of targeted fish stocks, destroys the maritime environment, degrades internal security, and brings national security forces into increasingly-escalatory encounters.

Text:  Over one billion residents of the Asia-Pacific rely upon fish as their primary source of protein, and the fish stocks of the region are under a relentless assault[1].  Current estimates place IUUF at between 11 and 26 million metric tons (MMT) yearly (total legal capture is approximately 16.6 MMT yearly), with an estimated value loss to regional economies of $10-23.5 billion[2][3].  Over a 25 year period, fish stocks in the South China Sea have declined anywhere from 6 to 33 percent, with some falling as much as 40 percent over the last 5 years.  In 2015, at least 490 million people in Southeast Asia lived in chronic hunger, with millions of children throughout the region stunted due to malnutrition[4].

Illegal fishing’s pernicious by-product is the critical damage done to the maritime environment by those flouting fishery regulations.  As large fish become more scarce as a result of industrial-scale overfishing, smaller-scale fishermen turn to dangerous and illegal practices to catch enough fish to survive.  Blast fishing obliterates coral reefs and kills indiscriminately, but despite prohibitions continues at a rate of nearly 10,000 incidents a day in Philippines alone[5].  Cyanide fishing is also still widespread, despite being banned in several Southeast Asian countries.  Used to stun fish for live capture (for aquariums or regionally popular live fish restaurants), cyanide contributes to the devastation of coral reefs across the SCS.  Giant clam poaching also has deleterious effects on reefs across the region as poachers race to feed Chinese demand for these shellfish.  Reefs throughout the Coral Triangle are interdependent, relying on one another for pollination, and as the reefs are destroyed by poachers seeking short-term gains, or even by small fishermen eking out a subsistence lifestyle, the effects of collapse ripple outward across the region.  The region is approaching an inflection point at which the damage will be irreparable.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC), which accounts for one-third of global fish consumption and is the world’s largest seafood exporter, fittingly leads the way in aggressively protecting its fishing fleets with an overwhelmingly powerful coast guard that dwarfs any other maritime law enforcement body in Asia[6][7].  As IUUF and environmental destruction cut into maritime resources and competition for those increasingly scarce resources escalates, national maritime law enforcement and naval forces are being rapidly expanded and widely deployed to protect natural resources and domestic fishing fleets.  If unmanaged, the friction generated by these fleets’ increasing interaction could easily explode into violent conflict.

For many countries in the region, the state’s legitimacy rests largely upon its ability to provide access to basic necessities and protect its citizens’ livelihoods.  Tens of millions across East Asia and Southeast Asia depend on fisheries for employment and, in many cases, their survival.  Should fish stocks begin to fail, regional states’ foundations will be threatened.  The combination of inadequate food supply and loss of livelihood could reasonably be expected to spur civil unrest.  In a state such as Indonesia, where 54 percent of the population relies on fish as its primary animal protein, historically weak institutions and propensity for military intervention only amplify the potential consequences of food insecurity.  In the PRC, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actively encourages illegal fishing to provide its 1.379 billion people with the fish, seafood and marine products that its lower-and-middle-class, as well as elites, expect.  Legitimacy of the CCP, at least in part, is dependent on the continued production of regional fisheries and desire to buttress its legitimacy will continue to drive this vicious cycle.

The above mentioned calamities can occur in isolation, but they are most often interlinked.  For instance, in the infamous 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident, Philippines maritime law enforcement boarded a PRC fishing boat that had been engaged in giant clam and shark poaching, as well as coral reef destruction.  Armed PRC maritime law enforcement vessels intervened and sparked an external dispute that continues in 2017[8].  Ensuing flame wars between Filipino and Chinese hackers and economic measures enacted by the PRC against the Philippines threatened stability in both the domestic and international spheres of both countries.  The threat posed by IUUF is not just about fish, its direct and follow-on effects have the potential to drag Southeast Asia into disastrous conflict.


[1] Till, G. (2013). Seapower: a guide for the 21st century. London: Routledge Ltd.

[2] Caputo, J. (2017). A Global Fish War is Coming. Proceedings, 143(8), 1,374. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from

[3] One of the World’s Biggest Fisheries Is on The Verge of Collapse. (2017, August 02). Retrieved October 25, 2017, from

[4] Asia-Pacific region achieves Millennium Development Goal to reduce hunger by half by 2015. (2015, May 28). Retrieved October 25, 2017, from

[5] Guy, A. (n.d.). Local Efforts Put a Dent in Illegal Dynamite Fishing in the Philippines. Retrieved October 25, 2017, from

[6] Jacobs, A. (2017, April 30). China’s Appetite Pushes Fisheries to the Brink. Retrieved October 25, 2017, from

[7] Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy (Rep.). (2015, August 14). Retrieved

[8] Are Maritime Law Enforcement Forces Destabilizing Asia? (n.d.). Retrieved October 25, 2017, from