The United States is “committed to the task” of collaborating with the governments and armed forces of Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Panama to protect the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Conservation Corridor (CMAR) and stop illegal fishing, drug and human trafficking, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Carlos del Toro said March 3.
“We have to work as a community to achieve our goal,” Del Toro told a forum organized by the Washington-based Wilson Center and held as part of the 8th Our Ocean Conference in Panama City.
The high-ranking U.S. official called attention to the “critical” importance of confronting climate change, one of the priorities of the U.S. government, and along with it, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing because of the consequences it has on ecosystems and biodiversity.
Del Toro, the second secretary of Hispanic origin in the history of the U.S. Navy, emphasized that illegal fishing is “a direct attack on the sovereignty of nations” and pointed to China as one of the “bad actors” in this regard.
“We cannot allow this to continue. We have to expose bad behavior on the part of China and all other countries that are not conducting themselves the way they should” regarding illegal fishing in the territorial waters of other nations, Del Toro said.
He also emphasized that in addition to having serious consequences for the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity, illegal fishing has serious economic, food security, and national implications, and how solutions to this scourge have to be based on science and technology that make it possible to better detect illegal activities.
“I am very excited about the possibilities that unmanned device technology can provide to collect information that can help promote accountability of these bad actors,” he said.
Protecting an invaluable maritime ecosystem
In July 2022, as part of the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, senior officials from the United States, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama signed a memorandum to create the CMAR.
The U.S. State Department called this agreement an unprecedented regional conservation effort covering more than 500,000 square kilometers in one of the most productive and biologically diverse areas of the ocean.
The area is home to the world-renowned Cocos, Coiba, Galápagos, Gorgona, and Malpelo islands, with unique and vulnerable habitats, and is home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna. The region is widely recognized as one of the most important areas for the protection, conservation, and management of biodiversity in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean.
According to official data, this corridor generates around $3 billion annually, mainly from fishing, tourism, and shipping.
At the Our Ocean Conference, the Connect to Protect Eastern Tropical Pacific Coalition, which includes the Development Bank of Latin America, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Nature Alliance, and the Green Climate Fund, announced a commitment of some $118.5 million in public and private funds — disbursed over the next four years — for the preservation of the CMAR.
“We are working with our allies in Panama, Costa Rica, and Ecuador to detect ships present in our protected waters,” Admiral Francisco Hernando Cubides, commander of the Colombian Navy, said at the meeting.
Adm. Cubides added that, although the initial task of the maritime military forces is to defend the countries, they are now also engaged in other no less important efforts, such as detecting and combating illegal fishing activities and drug and human trafficking.
“Every day we detect vessels in our two reserves in the Pacific: Malpelo and Gorgona,” said Adm. Cubides, who reported that in 2022 alone they detected some 40 metric tons of fish caught illegally. “It is a big number and the idea is that it should be zero,” he said.
Adm. Cubides stressed the “good communication” and technology exchange between partner countries in the Pacific and the Caribbean, which has allowed the implementation of strategies to better confront, not only illegal fishing, but also human and drug trafficking, which are carried out “even in rivers.”
Senior U.S. Navy and Defense Department intelligence officials insisted during the forum on their country’s willingness to share knowledge and technologies.
“Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is a global problem and will take a long time to solve,” said Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, director of the U.S. National Maritime Intelligence Integration Office.
For Rear Adm. Studeman, “if there is silence, there is consent” so the “idea of taking responsibility” is very necessary otherwise countries like China will continue their illegal activity.