November 14, 2023

Ranking Members Larsen, Carbajal Statements from Hearing on Coast Guard Drug Interdiction, Migration and Illegal Fishing Enforcement

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Rick Larsen (D-WA) and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Salud Carbajal (D-CA) during today’s hearing titled, “Guardians of the Sea: Examining Coast Guard Efforts in Drug Enforcement, Illegal Migration, and IUU Fishing.”

Video of Larsen and Carbajal’s opening statements can be found here and here.

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Ranking Member Larsen:
Thank you, Chair Webster and Ranking Member Carbajal, for holding this important hearing where we’ll focus on the Coast Guard’s essential law enforcement missions: drug interdiction, IUU fishing, and migration enforcement.

At a time when the Coast Guard is facing a personnel shortage and impacted operations, it is important for the Committee to take a closer look into how we can best help the Coast Guard succeed.

In fiscal year 2022, the Coast Guard interdicted nearly 335,710 pounds of cocaine at sea—preventing it from reaching the U.S. Unfortunately, that number, while significant, only reflects 5.4 percent of the known maritime drug flow.

This 5.4 percent rate is a substantial decrease from the annual target of 10 percent interdiction.

While this shortfall is partially due to better intelligence giving us a more accurate understanding of the maritime drug flow, it is also the result of personnel constraints and decreased asset availability due to diversion to other missions.

Improved intelligence combined with emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence and unmanned systems, are promising tools the Coast Guard can leverage to improve these interdiction rates—but ultimately, the Service needs more resources.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, also known as IUU fishing, is a serious threat that has vast security, economic, environmental and humanitarian impacts.

In 2020, the Coast Guard called IUU fishing the “leading global maritime security threat.”

IUU fishing includes foreign vessels fishing in another country’s territorial waters, violation of international conservation laws or tracking requirements and failure to report catches to proper authorities; often taking advantage of developing countries.

Annually, IUU fishing costs the global seafood industry between $26 billion and $50 billion.

Not only does it lead to overfishing of vulnerable fish populations and destroy essential habitats but it also threatens global food security.

Further, forced labor and human trafficking often occur on IUU fishing vessels, only raising the importance of enforcement.

China’s distant water fishing fleet is the largest perpetrator of IUU fishing, using predatory fishing practices around the world, violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and failing to regulate vessels that repeatedly violate the law. China also uses its influence and subsidies to influence poorer countries to turn a blind eye to IUU practices taking place in their territorial waters.

The Coast Guard plays a vital role in preventing IUU fishing within U.S. waters and the waters of partner nations. International partnerships are key in enabling the Coast Guard to assist other nations that lack enforcement capabilities.

Congress and international bodies like the United Nations and the International Maritime Organization can do more to combat IUU fishing.

Without adequate resources and funding for the Coast Guard, these missions will suffer.

The Coast Guard is facing one of the worst personnel shortages in their history. As the personnel shortage approaches 3,000 enlisted members, every Coast Guard mission will be impacted. The personnel most lacking—servicemembers that work on cutters, boat crew, engineers—are necessary to ensure that Coast Guard law enforcement missions do not falter.

For too long, the Coast Guard has done more with less, but this is not sustainable. This cannot continue. To have the Coast Guard this country needs, we must invest in Coasties by providing the Coast Guard with resources for effective recruiting and to repair crumbling infrastructure affecting recruits, cadets, Coasties and their families.

Today I’d like to hear from the Coast Guard about what Congress can do to help dig the Service out of its personnel deficit. Impacts to search and rescue, drug and migrant interdiction and IUU fishing should come as a wakeup call—more funding is needed. 

Thank you to our witnesses for their contribution to today’s hearing and working with us to make the Coast Guard the best it can be.

Ranking Member Carbajal:
Thank you, Chairman Webster.

I want to take this opportunity to discuss what has been and continues to be my top priority for the Coast Guard—its people.

We were recently alerted to major operational changes underway at the Coast Guard due to a personnel shortfall.

While the Coast Guard’s mitigation plans will prioritize search and rescue operations, national security, and the marine transportation system, operational status across the Coast Guard will be adversely affected. Over 50 stations across the country will be affected through station downgrades, asset layups, or station closures.
While the underlying recruiting and retention problem has been exasperated by larger workforce trends and a declining interest in military service, chronic underfunding is a major factor.

The Coast Guard Academy and Training Center Cape May, the two main points of entry into the service, are in desperate need of infrastructure improvements. The first experience with the Coast Guard must reflect an organization that cares about and for its people.

Congress must do better to support Coasties and I hope my colleagues will join in my demand for significant increases to the Coast Guard’s budget.

This August, I traveled with the Coast Guard to Panama where I had the opportunity to see firsthand how the Service conducts drug and migrant interdiction and its IUU fishing missions. I left the visit with several takeaways.

First, the Coast Guard alone is uniquely situated to execute these missions. Neither part of the State Department or the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard is able to form relationships and enter into agreements that would otherwise be impossible.

Second, the strong relationship with Panama and the associated benefits to the United States should be replicated in other places across world. With the current budget, that’s simply not viable.

Lastly, members of the Coast Guard are truly the backbone of the Service. One day a Coastie may be training Panamanians to conduct fishing vessel inspections while the next day they’re interdicting drugs on the high seas. They break ice on the Great Lakes and issue credentials for merchant mariners. They are truly our country’s best kept secret and value multiplier.

The Coast Guard’s footprint, both domestically and internationally, continues to grow and the distinct but related missions we’re covering today demonstrate the unique and important role of the service.

Combatting international Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing ensures equitable access to food, safeguards our oceans, and prevents forced labor and human trafficking.

Drug interdiction stops the flow of drugs before they reach American shores and combats transnational criminal organizations.

The Coast Guard’s role in migrant interdiction ensures that the least fortunate among us, who choose to board a vessel to come to the U.S., do not perish at sea.  

I look forward to hearing more about these missions and how Congress can support Coasties to ensure that the Coast Guard remains Semper Paratus.