Category Archives: Ocean Governance Week

Ocean Governance and Maritime Security in The Gulf of Guinea

Ocean Governance Topic Week

By Bem Ibrahim Garba 


The world’s oceans occupy over 70 percent of the earth’s surface, playing a significant role in the support of the socio-economic growth and development of nations. These oceans provide a source of livelihood for many people through fishing, shipping and logistics, exploration of hydrocarbons and petroleum resources, exploitation of mineral resources, as well as leisure.

For some time now, these repositories of valuable natural resources have endured great degradation due to man’s activities.  In order to continuously utilize and benefit from them now and in the future, the oceans need to be efficiently managed and sustained with guidelines and policies for effective governance.

This implies that ocean governance is not only obligatory but also compulsory on nations that are contiguous to the oceans and other major water bodies around the world. 

Ocean Governance

Ocean governance refers to actionable policies, strategies and activities embarked upon by governments and non-governmental agencies for influencing and managing the affairs of the world’s oceans. The world’s ocean systems are complex, as such matters concerning ocean governance are multi-pronged and multi-faceted. The challenges associated with climate change, green-house pollution, biodiversity loss, offshore extraction, and overfishing also continue to be a burden, posing various kinds of threat to marine life and humankind as well.  

These challenges are too complex to be tackled by a single group, region, or nation-state, hence keeping the world’s oceans healthy and safe requires a broad coalition of actors coming together under international guidelines and protocols. This becomes even more imperative as the global population is estimated to hit 10 billion by 2050 and 11 billion by the year 2100.

Governance in general involves interactions between formal institutions, civil society groups and organizations within areas of interest (sometimes geographic) aimed at exercising authority and influence, which leads to the enactment of policies and decisions, in the management of the economic and social resources of an area.

Ocean governance involves making sure that those who operate and trade on the oceans do so with safe and reasonable caution. They need to be guided by the requisite laws and order. As an example, in line with its Global Strategy and specific regional policies for the Gulf of Guinea, the European Union plays a key role as a global maritime security provider. It has mobilized resources to protect the region against maritime threats like piracy and human trafficking, reduced maritime accidents, and prevented environmental disasters. Satellite data from its Copernicus programme have been used by the European Maritime Safety Agency for international search-and-rescue operations at the request of the UN.

Since the inception of seaborne trade, ocean coastlines have been valuable gateways for global trade, however today, with ongoing pollution, human degradation, piracy, armed banditry, kidnapping of seafarers and illegal bunkering on the seas on the rise, there is a noteworthy decline in the economic value derived from seaborne trade within areas that border oceans notorious for criminality at sea.

Some of the threats to life and assets at sea include terrorism, vandalization, robberies, piracy, gun running, bunkering, and other acts of economic sabotage, stealing, pollution (from oil spillage), war and civil unrest, etc. These acts of criminality are especially common on the African coastline known as the Gulf of Guinea. 

The Gulf of Guinea (GOG)

The Gulf of Guinea (GOG) represents the continental coastline that borders the Atlantic Ocean and is more than 6,000 kilometers in length. This coastline spans the border of Africa from Central and West Africa, and borders more than a dozen countries.

The Gulf of Guinea (GOG) provides an economic theater to both coastal and landlocked African countries and is of strategic importance to the global business community and international shipping. The safe passage of goods and services to ports in this region, plus the required security within its waters is a critical factor to global energy production and transportation. This is more so as Nigeria and Angola, two countries within this zone, are amongst the world’s top ten crude oil exporters.

The Gulf of Guinea is also important to West Africa’s fishing industry, as it provides employment and a means of sustenance for a large percentage of the indigenous population. It offers vast mineral resources and commercially valuable marine life, as well as providing strategic maritime transport routes for international shipping. Its natural resources are integral to global trade networks. This justifies the need for maritime security and safety at all times.

The socio-economic and political environment within this area has changed over the years. Insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea has taken a different dimension. Piracy and other criminal activities have been on the rise, and constitutes a serious threat to life and commercial activity within the area.

Within Nigeria’s Niger Delta, there has been a spike in maritime piracy, armed robbery, and youth militancy. In 2007, over 100 attacks against shipping vessels were recorded. A study by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in 2013 identified the threats in the Gulf as acts of violence at sea, organized transnational crime, trafficking in drugs and illegal substances, illegal and unrecorded fishing, and other ecological risks. The report of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) records the Gulf of Guinea as the most dangerous sea in 2016.

The IMB also reported that in 2017 the Gulf of Guinea had the highest number of reported incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea in the world. It was noted in the same report that 102 crew members were kidnapped in 2018, compared to 63 kidnap incidents in 2017.

However, it is worthy to note that piracy is not the only cause of maritime instability and insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea. Other challenges related to weak governance include organized crime such as illegal fishing, drug smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering, and corruption. The region is known as a major transit corridor for drug trafficking from South America to Europe and other parts of the world.

Map of the Gulf of Guinea (Wikimedia Commons)

Close analysis suggests that weak ocean governance is the major factor enabling insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea. Other factors would include poverty within coastal communities, corruption of government officials, growing unemployment, youth militancy, terrorism, and the lure of quick money provided by criminal enterprise.

Healthy global trade demands a concerted global effort to combat criminal activities and the racketeering that have become synonymous with this region. To create a safer more secure economic region, there must be adequate information, human capacity development, the development and transfer of technical knowledge, sound and practical institutional policies and technological resources to manage the adverse human impact and natural hazards inherent within this marine environment and its ecosystem. This is impossible without integrated governance and a trans-regional ocean policy that will balance the use of this coastline with the sustainable development of its abundant resources.

Rising up to this challenge, many maritime organizations, especially the International Maritime Organization (IMO), have followed the security issues in the Gulf of Guinea for many years with a strong commitment to understanding and resolving the underlying challenges. This started after an appeal was made to the United Nations by the then-President of Benin Republic Thomas Boni Yayi for assistance in combating crimes in the region. In response to this, amongst many other pleas from other stakeholders, the UN Security Council in February 2012 came up with Resolution 2039 which urged states within the region to develop counter-piracy policies at regional and national levels.

Bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), and the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC) also convened joint meetings and strategic sessions to draft regional strategies. Documents drafted at the above meetings were endorsed at a summit of heads of states and governments of Central and West Africa in Yaoundé, Cameroon, in June 2013.

2015 saw the creation of the Inter-regional Coordination Center (ICC) under the auspices of the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC). Many other bodies have also been created to deal with the issue of insecurity and facilitate development in the area. These bodies include CRESMAO in 2014 and CRESMAC in 2015, under ECOWAS.

On the global scene, the UN Security Council Resolution 2039 invited international partners to provide support for regional efforts and bilateral relations and partnerships in the Gulf of Guinea. Developed countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, and Spain are to be part of the bilateral partnerships. The EU has also released its strategy for the Gulf of Guinea, and INTERPOL and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have included Gulf of Guinea piracy in their analyses and reports concerning organized crime in West and Central Africa.

This international attention acknowledges that maritime insecurity in West Africa, like Somali piracy, exists as a component of transnational crime and can have an impact far beyond the immediate region.

The IMO Council, in its Resolution 1069 of 2003, resolved to monitor the situation in relation to acts and attempted acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships, illicit maritime activity, and threats to ships sailing in the Gulf of Guinea. The council resolved to initiate any actions which it may deem necessary, including coordinating the work of competent committees of the organization to ensure the protection of seafarers and ships sailing in those waters and to ensure appropriate cooperation with other organizations and entities tasked with relevant activities.

Notwithstanding the efforts listed above, piracy and armed banditry still remain a critical challenge in the Gulf of Guinea, and this challenge continues to rise. Many factors have been adduced for the inability of these regional bodies to eliminate the incessant insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea. One of the key factors listed include the structure of the regional bodies responsible for this work. Most of them have duplicated functions and are poorly coordinated.

Another factor is the competition for scarce resources (mostly financial) by regional heads, organizations, committees, and donor bodies. This implies that most of these organizations are unable to operate efficiently, making them ineffective in tackling and combating criminal activity within the region.

There is no verifiable record of any criminal prosecutions for crimes committed within this region, hence the absence of any legal deterrents. This has, in turn, further led to an international outcry among the littoral states and maritime operators for increased surveillance, better restructuring, and greater funding for the management of the Gulf of Guinea.

To develop a workable blueprint for the sustainable development of renewable and non-renewable resources within the region, the conservation and protection of this marine domain, and to address the interrelated problems of the ocean space as a whole, there are key questions and challenges that are likely to confront the policymakers responsible for ocean governance.

When viewed holistically, there are four major areas or perspectives that ocean governance needs to be addressed from. They include environmental problems and population pressures; institutional responses to these problems and pressures; modern technology; and the adoption of the principles of responsible governance. A combination of these environmental, institutional, technological, and societal perspectives will have a significant bearing on ocean governance and, by extension, on the security and development of the Gulf of Guinea. 

Major Environmental Problems

Perhaps the most significant pressures on the marine environment over the coming decades will be exerted by the ever-increasing human population. This is currently at around 7.5 billion and is estimated to reach 11 billion by 2100.

Significant reforms and adjustments are needed if humanity will be guided away from the present yet obsolete socio-economic systems, while entering into a future blue economy that is directed and guided by sustainable ecological principles.

As millions of people live in and around coastal cities and islands, the ability to recognize the threats and benefits of the ocean in relation to economic and public health issues will become a major imperative for marine environmental protection. In order to achieve this, studies in nautical sciences, oceanography, ocean technology, navigation, and fishery technology (all interrelated), will be needed for the effective practice of ocean governance of the Gulf of Guinea and its coastal communities. 

Institutional Arrangements and Principles

In order to achieve the far-reaching security for people and cargo within the Gulf of Guinea and along its coasts, the governments of stakeholder states need to develop and adopt a grand security architecture in their approach to ocean governance. This will require inter-sectoral cooperation amongst the governing bodies.

Modern management principles and an integrated governance framework will be needed to improve enforcement and compliance in this ecological belt. Responsible ocean governance goes beyond legal and institutional arrangements and policies, even though these remain fundamental and key determinants. Other key factors worthy of consideration would include ethics and shared values; the use of the best scientific knowledge, shared information from indigenous knowledge systems; human capacity development; enhanced public awareness systems; technological advancements and innovation. All these are essential to enhancing cooperation amongst the stakeholders in order to strengthen institutional arrangements for ocean governance and to broaden participation amongst governing institutions at all levels in the Gulf region. 

Technological Challenges and Opportunities

The use of science and technology is increasing within many maritime domains. Some of the areas that have seen these developments include improved internet connectivity, marine information forecasts, transport efficiency, navigation, ocean floor profiling, and marine resource exploitation capabilities.

These developments in technology offer great opportunities for capacity development and wealth creation in the sector. In the future, access to cost-effective, timely data will be critical to enhancing ocean governance within the Gulf of Guinea. Information gathering and sharing via geospatial data systems and infrastructures will be essential for maritime domain awareness, observation, reporting, and more detailed exploration of the ocean’s floor. This will ensure the safety and security of marine operators while at the same time improving the management of commercial fishing practices.

Institutional Framework for Ocean Governance and Maritime Safety in the Gulf of Guinea

To achieve the above, institutional frameworks built on a multi-layered approach are required.

African nations within the littoral and landlocked zones of the Gulf of Guinea need to be more committed to formulating strategic maritime policies that engage with key ocean players to build bilateral partnerships. There is a need for an integrated fisheries management policy at the regional level through Regional Conventions and Fisheries Management Boards (RFMBs). This will improve regional ocean fishery regulation.

Finally, there is a need to build the capacity of partner states and organizations to monitor the oceans, conserve marine biodiversity and eliminate illegal, underreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the Gulf of Guinea. 

National governments can, through determined political will, take up the mantle of leadership needed to formulate national policies and regulations for their respective states. The regional bodies, on their part, can integrate the policies developed by individual states and fashion them into actionable goals to be achieved within specific time periods. At the global level, international agreements and protocols can be strengthened and implemented with support and advocacy from the diverse coastal communities.

All the above, if well-coordinated, will draw support from the coastal communities. Through social networking, capacity-building, and effective communication, coastal communities will lead the effort and support participatory governance. This will promote shared values and enhance the rule of law.

The Future of the Gulf of Guinea 

Looking into the future, the European Commission, in 2019, established the International Ocean Governance Stakeholders Forum which brought together maritime experts, civil society representatives, academics, and policymakers dedicated to ocean and maritime issues worldwide.

Their terms of reference were to establish new protocols, discuss current challenges that hinder international ocean governance, and recommend future actions to resolve them. African nations dotting the Gulf of Guinea need to borrow from this effort. They need to become more proactive, transcending from being ordinary policy formulators, to implementors of agreed-upon goals for the development of oceans and coastlines in Africa.

Addressing the Gulf of Guinea’s challenges is a significant task, while ocean governance is a daunting issue which demands an interdisciplinary approach and innovative solutions. It remains a known fact that this maritime domain has a community of likeminded peoples with the passion and commitment to tackle these challenges. Their reasons are very simple. The economic and historic importance of the area is beyond reproach.

Much can be achieved through the collective efforts of these coastal communities when they come together as progressive stakeholders for the governance of the Gulf of Guinea. Effective ocean governance within the Gulf of Guinea will require their collective identification of common goals and the implementation of collectively agreed upon effective strategies for managing the region. These must all be built on enduring institutional structures.

It is by doing this, and by carrying out the shared recommendations, that the laudable objective of ocean governance and maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea will be achieved.

Bem is the Chief Executive Officer of GOG Marine Limited, a shipowner and management company established to provide high quality product shipping services to end users doing business within the West African sub-region. From 2011 to 2017, Bem through his company BNTI Limited, was actively involved in defense equipment manufacturing projects (through strategic relationships) in India, South America, Europe and the U.S. For many years, he provided technical support and services to Nigerian law enforcement and military end users, supplying them with various hardware requirements. Bem is currently a Certified Management Consultant (CMC), and a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants (FIMC).

Featured Image: LIBREVILLE, Gabon (March 21, 2018) Participating African forces and international partners attend the exercise Obangame Express 2018 opening ceremony in Libreville, Gabon, March 21, 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Justin Stumberg)

Maritime Crime During the Pandemic: Unmasking Trends in The Caribbean

Ocean Governance Topic Week

By Dr. Ian Ralby, I.R. Consilium; Lt. Col. Michael Jones, The Caribbean Community’s Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (CARICOM IMPACS); and Capt. (N) Errington Shurland (ret.), Regional Security System (RSS)

While life on land for most people has been unusually sedentary in 2020 with significant travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders, the maritime space has remained remarkably active. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the Caribbean’s maritime domain has garnered widespread attention on three fronts: cruise ships stuck at sea, both with Covid-19 patients onboard and crew unable to be disembarked; a major increase in U.S. naval presence focused on countering narcotics trafficking, particularly via semi-submersible vessels; and shipments of sanctioned fuel and goods from Iran to Venezuela.

Though the region is being pulled into these issues to some degree, all three of these matters are primarily of an international nature. In examining the issues that are not merely occurring in the Caribbean but are of direct concern to the security, governance, and development of the region, the pandemic provides an opportunity for taking new approaches. By compiling comparative data from before and during the pandemic using maritime domain awareness technology and working collaboratively between states, regional bodies, and independent experts, we can bring to light previously overlooked activities and new criminal trends in the region. This new insight provides vital leads on how to reinvigorate maritime security and ensure that the waters of the Caribbeanamong the most economically valuable in the worldare governed by states and not transnational criminal networks.

Caribbean Maritime Activity During the Pandemic

Between March and July 2020, the Caribbean saw an unprecedented decline in travel owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. In terms of air travel, over those four months the member countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) saw only 4.7 percent of the arrivals and 9 percent of the departures they had seen the four months prior to the declaration of the pandemic.[4] Given such a dramatic drop in travel and tourism, combined with the well-publicized issues surrounding the health security of cruise ships, it would make some sense if the Caribbean also saw a dramatic decrease in maritime activity between mid-March and mid-July. Indeed, records indicate that from March to July 2020, the region saw 48 percent of the port arrivals of the November 2019-March 2020 timeframe.[5] Given this decrease in maritime activity, it would stand to reason that there was a comparable decrease in illicit maritime activity as well. That, however, does not appear to be the case.  

Traditional Metrics

Even by traditional metrics of quantities seized, the decline in criminal activity between March and July 2020 did not parallel the decline in port calls. In that period since the onset of the pandemic, the region seized roughly 60 percent the amount of cocaine, marijuana, and illegal migrants that it did between November 2019 and March 2020.[6]  Importantly, since early April, the increased presence of the United States Navy and Coast Guard in the region has accounted for more than $1 billion in drug seizures, potentially skewing the seizure figures for the regional states as well. The region, however, has not seen the sort of decline in traditional criminal activities that might be expected under the circumstances. In fact, there were 27 recorded incidents of maritime interdictions between March 12 and July 8, 2020, versus 23 in the longer period between 1 November 2019 and 11 March 2020.[7]  Furthermore, seizures in the last few months of birds, goats, cash, and fuel (for some examples), indicate the diversity of smuggling operations running through the Caribbean. Economic hardship may in fact be a growing driver for illicit activity. But these recorded figures are not the only means by which to determine whether criminality has declined in parallel with legitimate maritime activity.

New Approaches

Using Automatic Identification System (AIS) data, a variety of other datasets, augmented intelligence, and machine learning, increasingly advanced maritime domain awareness (MDA) technology can help examine different maritime activities to identify anomalies and instances of suspicious behavior. Whereas maritime law enforcement in the Caribbean has traditionally focused on small vesselsgo-fast speedboats, fishing vessels, and pleasure craft that are generally too small to use AIShigh-volume drug interdictions in other regions in the Caribbean have indicated that traffickers are increasingly using larger vessels for larger drug shipments. By using MDA technology that allows for queries on different activities, a variety of indicators can help shine a light on what has been transpiring in the region during the pandemic and in the time leading up to it.

Focusing on a few factors of potentially suspicious activity can help indicate whether the maritime space of the Caribbean has seen any significant change since travel restrictions began in March 2020. By honing in on vessels that either can be deemed “high risk” or “significant risk” based on algorithmic analysis of their movements, or that have corporate ownership and management structures that exhibit risk patterns, analysts can quickly concentrate on vessels that, based on their activities, are likely to have engaged in or currently are engaged in illicit behavior. Focusing on such vessels, and comparing incidents of dark activity, including drifting, sailing below three knots, changes in Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) numbers, meetings, and course deviations, helps paint a relative picture over time.

Each of these factors is tied to known criminal activities at sea. Dark activity, which is not limited merely to AIS signal loss, but intentionally turning off the AIS transponder, is prohibited under Chapter V of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention. There are some circumstances, even in the Caribbean, where as long as this was logged by the master of the vessel, such activity could be deemed acceptable for the safety of the vessel. But it often is an indicator of illicit activity.

Ships that intend to engage in illicit activitylike meeting with another vessel to embark drugs, transship illegally-caught fish or violate sanctionsmay turn off their AIS transponder to help obscure that behavior. Similarly, drifting and sailing below three nautical miles per hour are uneconomic behaviors for ships engaged in legitimate maritime commerce. While these indicators are not in and of themselves indicative of anything specific, they can suggest a vessel may not be acting legally, particularly if there are other risk factors present. Sailing below three knots may also be an indicator of either dropping off or seeking to pick up packages, often drugs, left in the water for collection. There may even be several days between the dropoff and pickup.

MMSI changes can be routine, but particularly when paired with other activities, can also indicate attempts to obscure either past or future activities. Furthermore, they can indicate changes in ownership and control of a vessel, and when such a change also includes a change in flag, there may be cause for concern as to the intentions of the new owners. Meetings could involve anything from bunkering or legitimate resupplying, to key transfers in a criminal supply chain. And finally, odd course deviations may also be indicators of uneconomic behavior that is tied to illegitimate activitiessuch as looking for geolocated drug packages left on the water for collection.

Table 1: Data drawn from Windward, an advanced maritime domain awareness platform, examining activities within the exclusive economic zones of all 15 CARICOM members, the five CARICOM associate members, and the Dominican Republic.

In looking at the Caribbean, the above chartwhich excludes tankers on account of their unusual challenges caused by the decline in the global oil marketis quite telling as to changes in suspicious activity during the pandemic. Using the same periods from the traditional analysis mentioned earlier (November 1, 2019 to March 11, 2020 and March 12 to July 8, 2020), both from 2019 into 2020 and from 2018 into 2019, shows that there is not a significant decrease in suspicious behavior during the pandemic.

On the contrary, there is actually an increase in dark activity, including drifting, sailing below three nautical miles, MMSI changes, and course deviations in comparison to the same periods in 2019. The only decreases were a slight drop in the number of vessels and a significant decline in the activity in which no one is supposed to engage in during a pandemic: meetings. Compared to the four months prior to the onset of Covid-19 restrictions, there were actually more dark activities and slow sailings during the pandemic than there were before.

Comparing the pandemic period to the period immediately prior is most instructive when considering the traditional datasets above. If the volume of legitimate maritime activity dropped by more than 50 percent and the volume of movement by air dropped more than 90 percent, it would seem that the volume of suspicious maritime activities should have dropped a significant amount as well. Instead, the pandemic saw a 38 percent decrease in the total number of suspicious vessels, a 26 percent increase in dark activity, a 77 percent decrease in drifting, an 18 percent increase in sailing below three nautical miles per hour, a 50 percent decrease in MMSI changes, an 88 percent decrease in meetings, and a 39 percent decrease in course deviations compared to the period from November 1, 2019 to March 11, 2020.

One convenient narrative to explain the increase could involve more ships being stuck at sea, but only if drifting rather than dark activity had risen. While this data is not conclusive, it does indicate that suspicious maritime activity does not operate in correlation with changes in legitimate maritime commerce. As has been noted regarding drug flows, “criminals don’t waste a good crisis,” meaning that maritime criminality is relatively unimpeded by the restrictions that have curtailed legal activities during the pandemic, and criminals may actually be taking advantage of the new status quo. This is new insight and new visibility for the region and digging deeper exposes a number of trends.

Vessel Families

While there has been a push in recent years for maritime interdictions to trigger financial investigations in the Caribbean, perhaps more attention needs to be paid to vessel ownership investigations, either at the national or at the regional levels. If a vessel is arrested either within the region or after having been through the region with drugs onboard, it is possible the vessel’s owners and operators may have been involved. Therefore, one approach to identifying suspicious vessels deserving of scrutiny is to examine any sibling and related vessels, including vessels of associated companies. Doing so in the Caribbean would require the identification of a list of vessels of interest whose activities immediately raise suspicion.

Figure 1: A Windward visual of a cargo vessel’s trail off Suriname depicting several course changes, indicative of a vessel possibly looking to collect drugs at sea. The vessel’s sister vessel was previously interdicted for drug trafficking elsewhere in the region and exhibited similar patterns.

Reverse Routes

The news has been full of stories about Iranian vessels heading for Venezuela, especially owing to international sanctions. However, in examining the movement of vessels leaving the Caribbean after engaging in suspicious activity, some actually proceed onward to sanctioned countries.[8] At the same time, new routes are emerging, bringing drugs and other contraband from other parts of the world to the Caribbean. This deserves significant attention from the region.

Figure 2: A Windward visual of a livestock carrier’s trail off Dominica depicting dark activity that lasted 20 hours and 6 minutes. To get from where the dark activity began to where it ended would have only taken 4 hours and 20 minutes, leaving 15 hours and 46 minutes unaccounted for. As that vessel continued across the Atlantic, in the middle of the ocean, it logged a draft change from 7 to 7.3 meters. While that may have been ballast, it may also account for a change in draft brought on by additional cargo embarked during the period of dark activity. Later, on the same voyage, the vessel’s transmission was lost in Oman’s exclusive economic zone. It reappeared in Iranian waters 19 hours and 57 minutes later.

Unexpected Vessels

A traditional narrative that has been contradicted is the notion that illicit goods are moved only in certain types of vessels. The 2019 arrest of the M/V NIKA in Indonesia should serve as a cautionary tale. The NIKA is a cargo vessel that was engaged in illegal fishing, operating almost invisibly on account of its vessel type. No law enforcement agency was looking for cargo vessels conducting illegal fishing. Similarly, for the Caribbean, only searching for container ships may obscure possible suspicious patterns of activity which are also being exhibited by cement carriers, livestock carriers, or reefers which may be engaging in smuggling and trafficking.

Figure 3: A Windward visual of a cement carrier’s suspicious route off Haiti where it approached the shore but did not call at a port, and then went dark for 4 days, 13 hours, and 39 minutes. Given that it resumed AIS transmission nearby, but on a completely different course, there are roughly 4 days and 11 hours unaccounted for. This kind of activity is irregular for a cement carrier.

Next Steps

The pandemic has forced a revision of how Caribbean entities approach their analysis of illicit maritime activity. The present collaboration has allowed for increased insight into suspicious activities in the region that have otherwise gone unnoticed. The question, however, is how does the region act on this insight? The Regional Security System (RSS) a sub-regional treaty-based security cooperation organization comprising seven states (all of which are also CARICOM member states)is able to use a mixture of fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft, small boats, and patrol vessels to monitor and interdict maritime crime. But even with these capabilities and extensive cooperation among the states, identifying these trends in such a way as to analyze and respond to them quickly enough to prompt on-the-water interdictions will be a challenge. Furthermore, the current concept of operations in the RSS and those of CARICOM member states are based on traditional understandings of trafficking routes and criminal modalities. As new insights enter the picture, new approaches need to be consideredboth in terms of how to maintain such enhanced maritime domain awareness and in terms of how to respond to it.

What has become clear is that even while much of the world has been stuck at home during the pandemic, criminals have continued to operate in the maritime space of the Caribbean with virtually no detectable decline in overall activity. Just as criminals continue to adapt and innovate amid changing circumstances, so too must law enforcement. Since the pandemic has destroyed the familiar status quo, the states and regional entities of the Caribbean need to proactively reevaluate the range of assets and approaches that can be deployed to identify, understand, and effectively disrupt maritime criminal activity.

To keep pace with and ultimately get ahead of the criminals, CARICOM member states will need to explore a range of tools for addressing the full spectrum of illicit maritime activities. This includes using new technology such as maritime domain awareness platforms, enhancing operational cooperation through CARICOM IMPACS and the RSS, and both adopting and implementing legal instruments such as the Treaty of San José. While the pandemic has curtailed and thwarted many good things around the world, it somewhat ironically has helped catalyze this process in the Caribbean.

Dr. Ian Ralby is a recognized expert in maritime law and security and serves as CEO of I.R. Consilium. He has worked on maritime security issues around the world, and has spent considerable time focused on and was previously based in the Caribbean. He spent four years as Adjunct Professor of Maritime Law and Security at the United States Department of Defense’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, and three years as a Maritime Crime Expert for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. I.R. Consilium is a family firm that specializes in maritime and resource security and focuses on problem-solving around the world. I.R. Consilium has extensive experience in the Caribbean, having worked in the region for almost a decade. Dr. David Soud and Rohini Ralby of I.R. Consilium also contributed to this article.

Lieutenant Colonel Michael Jones is the Executive Director (Ag) of the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS). He has an extensive career in project management and has been leading a number of border security initiatives since starting at the agency in 2011. He has also been a part-time lecturer in information systems and computer applications at the University of the West Indies, Cavehill. He has a Master’s in project management and evaluation from the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, and a Master’s of research, University of Liverpool. CARICOM IMPACS is the legal entity within the Caribbean Community, with direct responsibility for research, monitoring and evaluation, analysis and preparation of background documents and reports, as well as project development and implementation of the Caribbean regional crime and security agenda. Tonya Ayow, Callixtus Joseph, and Chesley Olliverre of CARICOM IMPACS also contributed to this article.

Captain (N) Errington Ricardo Shurland (ret.) is the Executive Director of the Regional Security System (RSS). Prior to this, he served in the Barbados Defence Force for 33 years. He served in several operational and administrative posts, including as an advisor to the Barbados delegations, and negotiating the Maritime Boundaries and Fisheries Agreements with Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a Master’s degree in Maritime Administration from the World Maritime University in Malmo, Sweden. The Regional Security System (RSS) is a seven-country, treaty-based cooperative security mechanism that focuses on maritime, air, and land security across its member states. Rolerick Sobers and Jeffery Forde of the RSS also contributed to this article.


[1] I.R. Consilium is a family firm that specializes in maritime and resource security and focuses on problem solving around the world. I.R. Consilium has extensive experience in the Caribbean, having worked in the region for almost a decade.

[2] CARICOM IMPACS is the legal entity within the Caribbean Community, with direct responsibility for research, monitoring and evaluation, analysis and preparation of background documents and reports, as well as project development and implementation of the Caribbean regional Crime and Security agenda.

[3] The Regional Security System is a treaty-based seven country cooperative security mechanism that focuses on maritime, air and land security across its member states.

[4] Data compiled by the Joint Regional Communications Center of CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS).

[5] Data compiled by the Joint Regional Communications Center of CARICOM IMPACS.

[6] Data compiled by the Regional Intelligence Fusion Center of CARICOM IMPACS.

[7] Data compiled by the Regional Intelligence Fusion Center of CARICOM IMPACS.

[8] Information gleaned from tracking vessels on Windward.

Featured Image: The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Heriberto Hernandez (WPC-1114) offloaded 55 bales of cocaine weighing 1,375 kilograms at Sector San Juan July 22, 2020. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ricardo Castrodad)

Arctic Governance: Keeping the Arctic Council on Target

Ocean Governance Topic Week

By Ian Birdwell


This June has been unsettling for the Arctic. Russia experienced three events the Arctic Council has been dreading for years: an oil spill, an outbreak of wildfires, and the hottest Arctic temperature record being set with a 100-degree Fahrenheit day in Siberia. However, Russia is not alone in addressing these events. The Arctic Council, the Arctic’s premier multilateral organization, has sought to prepare the region and the globe for the eventuality of a warmer Arctic.

These recent events bring into focus both the work the Council has done to promote regional governmental frameworks and the long road that remains ahead for fulfilling its mission of monitoring the Arctic environment. The Council has not been idle since its founding in 1996 and is continually promoting active measures to ensure the Arctic environment is protected as the region warms and opens to increased economic activity, with a host of working groups, agreements, and policy recommendations coming forward to address concerns like oil spills and sea ice retreat. This summer represents a major test of the Arctic Council as these crises come at a time when the Arctic Council is being pulled in directions it would rather avoid. Tensions are rising between the two most powerful states on the Council, the United States and Russia, and calls to direct the Council to address rising Arctic militarization have grown from prominent leadership.

Historically, the Council has tempered its focus on issues it can resolve and gain regional coordination on, ranging from environmental research to new regional agreements, with each state of the Council doing their part to empower the institution to meet those communal goals through the acknowledgement of the Council’s limitations. With consideration of those limitations weakening as the region experiences its worst June yet, the Arctic Council finds itself in newly tense territory.

It becomes critical to examine this June from the perspective of improving Arctic Ocean governance to tackle these emerging environmental issues. Given the track record of the Arctic Council in developing regional frameworks, the solution lies with it and its member states. Particularly, acknowledging the Council’s limitations and its adopted role would enable the Council to do the job it has been designed to do in terms of providing coordination on scientific research, regulations, and indigenous representation instead of becoming another institutional battleground for international competition. Thus enabled, the Council would be able to further the quiet lead it has maintained on Arctic issues for more than 20 years in creating mutually acknowledged regulations for the Arctic’s waterways and in strengthening the overall international maritime regime.

Regional Facilitator and Forum

The Arctic Council began from efforts to preserve the Arctic environment in 1996, and today research coordination across all members and observers of the Arctic Council remains paramount. This marks the first area where members could assist in developing governmental frameworks for the Arctic region by empowering the Council through reaffirming its mission to coordinate regional scientific research. Scientific research coordinated by the Council enables member states to address emerging issues, act on new opportunities, and protect their communities.

The clearest example of such information dissemination is linked to the publication of the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment which renewed global interest in the potential of a warm Arctic and the plight of the unique environment of the polar region. This research is not glamorous and does not yield immediate results, yet it is fundamental to the establishment of effective regional policies for all member states in response to the increasing changes of the Arctic. Particularly, coordinating research enables a broader understanding of the regional transformation, a sharing of ideas and perspectives, and has stood the test of tensions in maintaining relationships in spite of broader international disagreements. In effect, the Council’s push toward scientific research has enabled states mostly concerned with the broader global environment to maintain Arctic policy flexibility without radically shifting their own domestic policies. This stability of research coordination could be disrupted by continued calls for the Council to address regional militarization, which in turn could negatively impact the collection and coordination of research within the Council’s network. Thus, recognizing the limitations of the Council in addressing emerging issues regarding militarization enables the continued functioning of scientific coordination and diplomacy in the high north and preserves domestic policymaking for Council members.

One of the most recognizable aspects of the Arctic Council is the inclusion of a variety of indigenous people’s organizations from throughout the Arctic region. This marks the second area where the Arctic Council could assist in furthering Arctic maritime governance as it has been critical in engaging the local indigenous communities. Climate change is ravaging the Arctic landscape in different ways, so the Arctic Council has been dedicated to ensuring the ways of life of the regional indigenous communities are preserved as best as possible and their voices are heard through the Arctic Council’s Permanent Participant organizations and the Indigenous People’s Secretariat. This engagement with the indigenous community has played a large part in the overall regional engagement of the Arctic Council, with the Council supporting critical issues like health, economic, and education initiatives alongside cultural preservation programs. In turn, these communities provide member states with experts offering deep knowledge of the local environment, climate conditions, and real-time impacts of climate change throughout the region, giving the Council critical on-the-ground information regarding how regional warming is impacting the Arctic.

As the Council is pushed to address issues like militarization and other dicey political issues, the indigenous communities of the Arctic could be pushed into the background as political capital is expended to address narrower national interests. This could inhibit the ability of the Council to address rising maritime issues like the endangerment of marine environments due to increased human activity or climate change, issues where indigenous communities are the most vulnerable and most aware of in the changing climate. Thus, there is the risk of the Council being unable to address problems noticed by indigenous populations if it focuses on addressing militarization or other issues heavily tied to the competing national interests of member states.

One of the crowning achievements of the Arctic Council in the past decade has been the establishment of a series of maritime shipping reports and regulations which were adopted by the International Maritime Organization as the Polar Code in 2017. This is another area where the Arctic Council could further Arctic maritime governance. The Arctic Council’s history of getting members to come together to address communal issues related to environmental management and the prevention of major disasters has been predicated upon putting cooperation above national interest, and this has served as the foundation of the current Arctic regulatory regime, with several agreements and working groups focused on those concerns.

An infographic illustrating the safety requirements in the Polar Code [Click to expand] (Infographic via the International Maritime Organization)
Still, the urge to promote national interests has not been dispelled, as evident with the Ilulissat Declaration of 2008, but it has been tempered within the confines of the Council throughout the history of the organization. Unfortunately, several high-profile declarations of concern regarding Arctic militarization within the structures of the Council serve to push out conversations regarding the preparedness of states in dealing with Arctic climate calamities and the preparedness of the Council to provide necessary assistance to states in need. This overconcern with national interests distracts from the central tenets of the Arctic Council and makes it significantly more difficult for the Council to maintain cooperative avenues for assistance with surging issues like sea ice retreat, migration, oil spills, and forest fires as some nations struggle to establish a vague dominance of the Council. Reducing pressure on the Council as the body to address issues like militarization would assist in maintaining its role as a body providing regulatory guidance to member states experiencing the most rapid transformation.


The Arctic Council is the best international body to begin addressing the complex issues surrounding maritime governance in the waterways of the Arctic region by developing and codifying communal responses to regional issues. In order for the Council to pursue such policies effectively it must have a community of members willing to work together and acknowledge the limitations imposed on the Council which have so far enabled its effectiveness for more than 20 years.

Ian Birdwell is a Ph.D. Student at Old Dominion University’s Graduate Program in International Studies. His research focuses on the exploration of the motivations behind the pursuit of Arctic security, how identity factors into the cultivation of regional habits, and the impacts of emerging trade routes on global power dynamics.

Featured Image: “North Pole” by Christopher Michael via Wikimedia Commons

The Cod Wars and Today: Lessons from an Almost War

Ocean Governance Topic Week

By Walker D. Mills


Atlantic Cod vary in color from grey to greenish-brown and can grow to be as large as five feet long (though this is uncommon). The fish have long been a staple of diets across the North Atlantic and fishermen have crisscrossed those waters from the Grand Banks off Newfoundland to the North Sea to bring back cod to their home markets.

Not once, but three times in the 20th Century, cod was almost the causus belli between Iceland and the United Kingdom in a string of events referred to collectively as the “Cod Wars.”1 The Cod Wars, taken together, make clear that issues of maritime governance and access to maritime resources can spark inter-state conflict even among allied nations. Fishing rights can be core issues that maritime states will vigorously defend.

Fighting for Fish

In the spring of 1958, following the conclusion of several treaties resulting from the first United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS I), the Icelandic government announced that it would extent its territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles.2 Just a few years earlier, they had extended their territorial waters from three to four miles and caused a row with the British government, sometimes called the “Proto-Cod War.” The 1958 12-mile increase was much larger and almost singly directed at the British fishing fleet that trawled Icelandic waters for cod.

The United Kingdom, which had long supported only a three-mile territorial waters limit, was incensed. They reminded the Icelanders that they had been fishing cod in Icelandic coastal waters since at least the 15th Century.3 A large fleet of UK-based fishing trawlers regularly operated off the coast of Iceland, and well within 12 miles of the coast. This cod fleet was supported by processing plants and retailers back in the UK and was well-represented not only in the British Parliament but also well-regarded in public opinion.

In the months between the announcement and the coming enforcement of the extension it was not clear exactly what Iceland intended to do if the British trawlers did not leave voluntarily. Iceland had no navy and the Icelandic coast guard had only seven small ships with one gun each – almost all under 100 tons.4 In contrast, the Royal Navy was regarded as one of the world’s most powerful navies and the Icelandic coast was less than two days sailing away from Royal Navy bases in the United Kingdom.

The First Cod War started on September 1st, 1958. Icelandic coastguardsmen sought to arrest and impound any British trawlers within their new 12-mile limit. The Royal Navy established zones patrolled by frigates and destroyers to protect their fisherman. Their first clash came the following day on September 2nd, when Icelandic coastguardsmen from the Thor boarded the British trawler Northern Foam which had strayed out of the zone protected by British warships. But the Northern Foam was able to send a distress signal to one of the Royal Navy ships and soon a counter-boarding party from the HMS Eastbound boarded the Northern Foam as well and convinced the Icelanders to leave.5

The Icelanders, however, were not backing down. The health of their offshore cod fisheries had begun to significantly decline with as much as a 15 percent reduction in cod catch over the previous three years despite increases in the size of the fishing fleet.6 After two and-a-half years the British government backed down and acquiesced to the new 12-mile limit.

Ten years later the conflict began anew when Iceland announced that it would be extending the 12-mile limit to 50 miles effective on the first of September 1972. This “Second Cod War” was more intense and more violent, with multiple incidents of Icelandic coast guard vessels firing at or near British trawlers and many incidents of ramming by Royal Navy warships, British tugboats, and Icelandic coast guard vessels.7 The Second Cod War also saw the use of a new weapon in the anti-trawler fight by the Icelandic coast guard – a device for cutting trawler fishing nets. The coast guard vessels could fire a hook across the trawl lines of a fishing vessel and when they reeled their hook back in it would cut the net free of the trawler. Thus the fisherman would lose not only their catch but also their net.8

An Icelandic net cutter (Wikimedia Commons)

It was also during the Second Cod War that Iceland threatened to leave NATO (it was a founding member) and expel U.S. troops from Iceland, specifically their key base at Keflavik.9,10 This threat revealed the significant leverage that Iceland had in dealing with NATO despite not having a standing military. Iceland’s contribution to the alliance is its key location astride the North Atlantic, roughly halfway between Greenland and the United Kingdom. The nature of Iceland’s contribution to the alliance meant that it could not be replaced by another member or any other combination of members. Also, an Iceland out of NATO could have possibly looked toward the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact to be its new security guarantor.

In November 1975 Iceland initiated the Third Cod War when it unilaterally extended its territorial waters out to 200 miles. During the Third Cod War Iceland again threatened to withdraw from NATO and severed diplomatic relations with Britain for a time. British warships again clashed with Icelandic vessels, and collisions – both intentional and not – were common. Wire cutters were also used again to cut trawler nets. The dispute was again ended on terms favorable to Iceland in 1976, where Britain accepted the new 200-mile limit and received only limited and temporary fishing rights in return.11

Lessons for Today

If the Cod Wars are relevant today, then what are the important lessons decades after they have been settled? Three takeaways stand out. First, smaller, less powerful nations can successfully contest maritime disputes below the threshold of war. The Icelandic coast guard was successful in keeping British trawlers out of Icelandic waters – except for the three specific patrol zones established by the Royal Navy. Forcing the trawlers to operate in specific, tightly controlled zones significantly reduced their ability to fish and the size of their catch which were the ultimate goals of the extension of the territorial waters claim.

Icelandic gunboat collides with British frigate in March 1976 (Footage via Associated Press)

Second, a critical part of the conflict was the asymmetry in will. Iceland, a much smaller nation than Britain with far fewer resources, simply had more willpower. In the words of Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, “The Icelandic government was shockingly tough.”12 They were even willing to go so far as to threaten to withdraw from NATO and kick U.S. troops out of Iceland to preserve the health of their fisheries. Britain, despite having dramatically more power overall, did not have the political will to fully employ their naval power against the Icelandic coastguard or the leverage to counter the Icelandic threat to leave NATO. The British Foreign Secretary and the Secretary for Fisheries and Food acknowledged that “NATO’s defenses in the North-Atlantic and the balance of power were more important than the interests of the Humber trawler owners and fishermen.”13

Third, issues of maritime governance and control (like fishing rights) can be seen as core issues to the nations concerned and can potentially lead to war. If this lesson comes as a surprise, it shouldn’t. Wars have been fought over what are purely maritime disputes since the Trojan War.14 Some authors have argued that because of the liberal ties between Iceland and the Britain full-scale war was simply not possible, but the possibility of armed confrontation was surely close to the minds of those involved.15

The United States, China, and their respective partners would do well to remember the Cod Wars as tensions rise in the Indo-Pacific where fishing access and maritime boundaries are central to several ongoing disputes.

Walker D. Mills is a Marine infantry officer currently serving as an exchange officer in Cartagena, Colombia. He has previously authored commentary for CIMSEC, the Marine Corps GazetteProceedings, West Point’s Modern War Institute and Defense News.


1. The name is attributed to the British journalist Llewellyn Chanter who covered the first Cod War for The Daily Telegraph. Gudmundur J. Gudmundsson, “The Cod and the Cold War,” Scandinavian Journal of History, Vol. 31, No. 2, (June 2006) 97.

2. Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson, “How ‘cod war’ came: the origins of the Anglo-Icelandic fisheries dispute, 1958–61,” Historical Research, vol. 77, no. 198 (November 2004) 557.

3. Gudmundsson, “The Cod and the Cold War,” 100.

4. Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1997) 162.

5. “Richard Nelsson, “Iceland v Britain: the cod wars begin – archive, September 1958,” The Guardian (7 September 2018)

6. Kurlansky, Cod, 161.

7. Ibid, 166.

8. Sverrir Steinsson, “The Cod Wars: a re-analysis,” European Security, (March 2016) 4.

9. Steinsson, “The Cod Wars: a re-analysis,” 4.

10. John W. Young and John Kent, International Relations Since 1945: A Global History, 2nd edition (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013) 86.

11. Steinsson, “The Cod Wars: a re-analysis,” 4.

12. Kurlansky, Cod, 166.

13. Gudmundsson, “The Cod and the Cold War,” 101.

14. Trevor Bryce, “The Trojan War,” chapter in The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010) 480.

15. Sverrir Steinsson, “Do Liberal ties pacify? A study of the Cod Wars,” Cooperation and Conflict, (June 2017) 2-3.

Featured Image: HMS Scylla and Odinn collision during the Second Cod War (Wikimedia Commons)