Small Wars Journal

The Strategy of Fishing: IUU Fishing and American Influence in the Pacific

Thu, 01/19/2023 - 10:08pm


The Strategy of Fishing: IUU Fishing and American Influence in the Pacific

By Ethan Thayer


Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing threatens the United States’ influence in the Western Pacific. The region is host to significant American military installations and partner nations. States such as the Marshall Islands support bases or can serve as platforms for future operations. These nations rely on fishing as a source of economic development. IUU fishing harms regional partner nations’ economic development and self-sufficiency, leaving them vulnerable to the United States’ threats. Regional threats such as China can undermine and supplant the United States’ regional alliances and strategic lines of communication through economic incentives to partner nations. IUU fishing will harm the United States’ ability to project power in the Western Pacific as regional threats exploit partner nations’ economic dependence on fishing.

Since World War II, the United States has maintained a significant presence in the Pacific. The United States controls various territories while maintaining partnerships with different states. Some countries such as Micronesia and Palau rely on the United States for economic and defense assistance through various agreements. For instance, the United States signed the Compact of Free Association with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands in 1986 and Palau in 1994. In exchange for American economic and defense assistance, the agreement allows for the United States to request basing rights for future conflicts. The agreement and others like it contribute to American force projection potential and maritime lines of communication in the Pacific.

With limited access to natural resources and other sources of economic revenue, various Pacific island states rely on fishing for their development. The Pacific Community (Gillett, 2016) published a study that estimated fishing constituted significant portions of Pacific island states’ economies. In Micronesia, fishing composed over 10% of its economy in 2014. In the Marshall Islands, fishing composed over 14% of its economy in 2014. In Pacific island states such as Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, fish are critical sources of exports and domestic subsistence. Tuna fishing alone contributes to half of the states’ revenue. Fishing is a critical element in the Pacific island states’ economies.

IUU fishing refers to a range of illicit fishing activities that occur in a state’s waters. States with coastal territories also control the exclusive economic zones that surround them. Within an exclusive economic zone, the state that claims it also controls the rights to the resources in the area. Countries such as the Pacific island states depend on these resources for sustainment and development. Fishing vessels often operate in an exclusive economic zone without the national government’s consent and knowledge. Foreign and domestic vessels conduct IUU fishing within these areas. IUU fishing’s illicit nature makes it difficult for states to track the activities. It is particularly difficult for Pacific island states to monitor IUU fishing due to their control over large exclusive economic zones. According to the World Ocean Review’s (2013) estimates, IUU fishing makes up for 34% of fish caught in the Western Pacific.

IUU fishing harms Pacific states’ reliance on fish for their continued development and stability, leaving their economies vulnerable. In recent years, fishing fleets have operated in Pacific states’ waters without the governments’ consent. Determining the exact extent of IUU fishing’s damage to Pacific economies is difficult due to the challenge of tracking these activities. The High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Widjaja et al., 2019) estimates that IUU fishing costs states between $10 billion to $23.5 billion. These effects are especially impactful for small developing states such as the Pacific island countries. Without fishing as a critical source of revenue, these states may become unable to support themselves without outside assistance.

Despite the United States’ assistance to many of these states, they have increasingly turned to other powers for additional support, particularly China. Chinese investment in developing Pacific island states has increased as it seeks to expand its influence in the region. China has provided loans to the Pacific island states, often acquiring or preferential treatment for Chinese businesses or land rights. In the East Asia Forum article “Micronesia’s future between China and the US,” Scott Leis (2012) examines how China has increased its influence in Pacific island states. Leis describes how the Chinese tourist company Exhibit and Travel Group has obtained land rights in the Micronesia island of Yap in 2011. With the land rights, the company began developing critical infrastructure and facilities such as seaports and airstrips. Many IUU fishing vessels originate from China, which has done little to restrict their activities in other states’ waters. In some cases, China passively encourages its fishing fleets to conduct IUU fishing. IUU fishing has become a means of feeding China’s population while expanding its influence abroad, even to the detriment of other states. As IUU fishing harms Pacific island states’ economies, states such as China have exploited the situation as a means of expanding their influence.

Regional rivals threaten to supplant the United States’ influence in Pacific island states. IUU fishing and other malign activities such as piracy erode economic development and stability in the Western Pacific. As powers such as China solidify their regional influence through economic inducements, they appear as a viable alternative to American assistance. For instance, American funding to Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau through the Compact of Free Association is set to end in 2023. In a time when there are concerns regarding the United States’ dependability as a partner, China seeks to supplant its leadership role in the Pacific. As seen in 2011 with the Exhibit and Travel Group’s development plan, Chinese organizations have begun to leverage their economic influence. These arrangements have immediate implications for the United States’ agreements and foreign policy with Pacific island states. If regional threats’ economic inducements overcome American influence, the United States’ partner nations could turn to states such as China as their benefactors.

Regional rivals threaten the United States’ force projection capabilities as they position themselves to supplant American influence in Pacific island states. The United States’ relationships with the Pacific island states enhance its military force capabilities in the region. The United States operates military installations in Pacific island states such as Bucholz Army Airfield in the Marshall Islands. The partnerships also enhance the United States’ future force projection capabilities. Agreements such as the Compact of Free Association allow the United States to request basing rights in the Pacific island states. In October 2020 (McLeary), the United States and Palau began discussions regarding the possibility of creating military installations on the archipelago. These potential installations would serve as critical platforms for future military operations in the region. As tensions between the United States and China increase, these installations will become particularly important in the event of a large-scale conflict. If China secured basing rights in the various Pacific island states, it would enhance its force projection capabilities. In some cases, China’s military could operate close to American territories such as Guam. The United States’ partnerships with Pacific island states are critical to its ability to operate in the region. If threats such as China successfully supplant the United States’ influence in the region, they would enhance their operational reach in future conflicts.

China’s national defense strategy recognizes the Pacific island states’ importance in future regional conflicts. China’s 2015 Military Strategy (Zhang, 2020) highlights the importance of fostering military ties with the Pacific island states. These moves include offering training assistance, infrastructure development, and other forms of military aid. Through these actions, China seeks to solidify its regional influence and expand it into a permanent presence. China will succeed in establishing a permanent regional presence if it successfully entices the Pacific island states through its economic inducements. In a 2012 report (Matelski, 2016), the Chinese military included a map that reflected its intention to establish control over various Pacific island chains. Control over these island chains would aid China in enforcing and protecting its territorial claims. The islands would also allow China to expand its force projection capabilities to challenge the United States further abroad. China seeks to exploit the Pacific islands states to its advantage in potential conflicts with the United States.

IUU fishing jeopardizes the United States’ influence and partnerships in the Western Pacific. IUU fishing threatens regional partner nations that the United States relies on for current and future operations. Fishing is a critical element in the Pacific island states’ economies. IUU fishing harms the states’ economic stability and development. IUU fishing’s impacts on the economies also harm the states’ ability to resist economic inducements. The United States’ competitors such as China seek to utilize these inducements to influence and exploit the Pacific island states to their advantage. Competitors such as China desire to supplant the United States as the states’ benefactor. These competitors will enhance their force projection capabilities if they succeed in establishing a permanent presence in the region. Through organizations and services such as USINDOPACOM’s Task Force Oceania (Navarro, 2021) the United States will support partner nations in combating IUU fishing. These efforts are critical to preventing the United States’ partner nations from becoming vulnerable. So long as IUU fishing remains a threat to the Pacific island states’ stability, it will threaten the United States’ regional influence and enable its rivals.





Gillett, R. (2016). Fisheries in the Economies of Pacific Island Countries and Territories. Pacific Data Hub.


Leis, S. (2012, June 16). Micronesia’s future between China and the US. East Asia Forum.


Matelski, T. (2016, February 19). America’s Micronesia Problem: The end of the Compact of Free Association with the Federated States of Micronesia would have serious repercussions. The Diplomat.


McLeary, P. (2020, October 23). As US Military Moves Into Palau, China Watches Intently. Breaking Defense.


Navarro, S. (2021, July 9). Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing in the Pacific. Army Worldwide News.


Widjaja, S., Long T., Wirajuda H. (2019). Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Associated Drivers. Ocean Panel.


World Ocean Review. (2013). Illegal Fishing.


Zhang, D. (2020, August 17). China’s Military Engagement with Pacific Island Countries: New frontiers bring heightened competition. Asia & the Pacific Policy Society.

About the Author(s)

Ethan Thayer is a First Lieutenant in the United States Army. Ethan is a graduate of History and Middle Eastern Studies from William & Mary, commissioning in 2021. Ethan’s research focus is on the history and evolution of international competition and rivalries, particularly in developing states. Ethan currently serves as an Officer in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.


Nice piece. I have co-led applied research in this area for 18 months. It is great to see you raising IUUF as an irregular warfare issue. Well done.