Protect our waters, secure our future

Central America continues to mature as a region through geopolitical partnerships such as the Central American Integration System, or SICA. But much of that progress is now at risk due in large part to increasingly linked illegal activities occurring throughout the region’s waters and ports. 

We are referring to illegal fishing and its associated crimes, which include drug smuggling, human trafficking and total disregard for our natural environment. Increasingly, the lines separating illegal activities on the water are blurring as transnational criminal organizations use illegal fishing operations to hide in plain sight, flout the law, and violate Central American sovereignty.

In many cases, illegal fishermen knowingly ignore fishing quotas, licensing requirements and other policies in greedy pursuit of easy profits. In other cases, criminals pose as fishermen to gain access to less-governed routes on which to carry out smuggling operations and a wide range of illicit activities. Those problems infect the entire region and, in fact, the rest of the world through terrorist and criminal networks. Thus, we encourage the leaders of SICA to confront this issue with urgency.

Illegal fishing crews and those who finance them benefit from a regulatory system rife with loopholes. Fishing vessels are among the least regulated of all marine craft, and fisheries enforcement personnel are in serious need of resources. While we have seen successes — notably, Honduras's and Costa Rica's enforcement of their shark protections — overall  the current system still allows criminals to steal huge volumes of fish from our national waters and to use fishing vessels to transit drugs, precursor chemicals, and money through our territories and into our homes.

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U.S. President Obama met with Central American presidents in Costa Rica in early May. The presidents knows that public security and economic vitality are inextricably linked. Countries and economies thrive when citizens feel safe in their homes and their communities, take pride in their governments and know that natural resources are conserved for future generations. Central America can thrive in all of those areas but will do so only if we recognize and overcome the threats to that opportunity.

Fortunately, Central America has started to take a lead in marine resource conservation. Successes include the establishment of a shark sanctuary in Honduras that outlaws commercial shark fishing in all of the country’s waters, shark-finning bans and support for regulating trade in threatened shark species. Protecting these majestic animals makes sound economic sense, as sharks are key to healthy coral reef systems and to the balance of the marine food chain. By creating shark sanctuaries, countries take the most active approach possible to ensure the future for these iconic species and our oceans.

Another critical step would be for regional and U.S. leaders to partner in expanding joint patrols in Central American waters, to increase information sharing to attack rogue networks and to coordinate enforcement actions. Existing bilateral agreements allow the U.S. Coast Guard to stop and search vessels suspected of illegal fishing; smuggling drugs, arms and money; or human trafficking. These pacts respect Central American sovereignty, often by stipulating the presence of local enforcement officers on U.S. patrols. 

Illegal fishing and the overexploitation of natural resources directly undermine the conservation and security objectives of SICA. Many criminal fishing operations are highly sophisticated and employ complex incorporation and vessel registration strategies designed to avoid tracking. These operations often forge catch documentation, and there are indications of corruption in the licensing and control systems. Given the importance of public security to the region, SICA leaders must work together to comprehensively address these issues.

Such cooperation should include: the expansion of joint patrols and coordinated enforcement with the U.S. Coast Guard and regional partners; the fast ratification and implementation of the Port State Measure Agreement, an international treaty that tightens port oversight of suspected illegally caught fish; and the creation of a Central American shark sanctuary.

We cannot continue to behave as if the oceans’ resources are limitless. By tackling these issues head-on, the presidents can join together to safeguard our region’s wondrous natural resources, lift our economies, and improve public security for our citizens.


Figueres is co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission and former president of Costa Rica. Allen is an executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., and retired as the commandant of the United States Coast Guard in 2010.