- The Washington Times - Monday, October 5, 2020

It may seem a minor concern when compared to the violent transnational criminal organizations who move $90 billion worth of illegal narcotics through the region every year, but U.S. military officials say the practice of illegal fishing is destabilizing communities across Latin and South America and has become a growing security problem.

And Admiral Craig Faller, who heads up the Pentagon’s U.S. Southern Command, says there’s a familiar bad guy for American military planners — China.

“Most of that illegal fishing comes from China,” Adm. Faller told an online briefing for the Americas Society amd the Council of the Americas Monday. “China’s corrosive influence in this hemisphere is something that has us focused with a sense of urgency day in and day out.”

Illegal fishing is a top concern for any country with a coastline, said Jean Manes, a State Department diplomat and former ambassador to El Salvador. She is now the deputy commander and foreign policy advisor at the Southern Command’s Miami base.

“When you have illegal fishing off the coast, it means those local fishermen no longer have a business,” Ambassador Manes said. “What happens when those fishermen no longer have a business? They need to feed their families.”

The loss of their livelihoods has led some fishermen to run fuel or other supplies out to the drug-smuggling boats working offshore just so they can support their families, she said.

Some 17,000 Chinese state-subsidized commercial vessels are vacuuming up fish along the coasts in Western Hemisphere waters because it has already overfished the areas around its own country, U.S. officials say.

“Is it something we want for this hemisphere or do we take action now?” Ambassador Manes said. “The path to where that leads is pretty clear.”

The Coast Guard’s top admiral said illegal fishing was a national security threat last month when the service released a new plan to combat the contraband trade over the next decade.

“We are committed to working with our allies and like-minded partners to strengthen the international fisheries enforcement regime and counter this pervasive threat,” said Admiral Karl L. Schultz, commandant of the Coast Guard.

More than 300 China-financed fishing boats were recently spotted in the waters around the Galapagos Islands, the famed Pacific archipelago that is part of Ecuador and is a UNESCO world Heritage Site, Ambassador. Manes said.

“We actually tracked those vessels. You can see when a ship turns off their navigation device,” she said. “You can see it when a vessel ‘goes dark.’”

There are only two reasons when a ship “goes dark” — it is being attacked by pirates or it is doing something illegal, she added.

Overfishing the waters of the Western Hemisphere is only part of China’s activities that are of concern in his region of responsibility, Admiral Faller said, who described a concerted push for influence by Beijing south of the U.S. border.

“China is working on port deals, IT deals, infrastructure deals and military partnerships,” he said. “Competition — particularly from China — is alive and well right here in this hemisphere.”

Countries such as Russia and Iran also are making a play for influence in the Western Hemisphere, U.S. planners say. Hundreds of Russian personnel are currently on the ground in Venezuela helping to support the struggling socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

The Trump administration has instituted a range of strict sanctions to cut off Venezuela’s oil trade and drive Mr. Maduro from power. But the Venezuelan leader is holding off a challenge from U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido, in part because of support from allies such as Moscow and Tehran.

“They’re working day in and day out to undermine U.S. interests,” Admiral Faller said.

Iran’s relationship with Mr. Maduro’s government has grown in intensity over the past several months. Iran also sees an opportunity for an expanded military-to-military relationship with Venezuela, the U.S. commander said.

“It’s not just the oil deliveries. It goes beyond that,” he said.

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