Illegal Fishing Is a Global Threat. Here’s How to Combat It.

Chinese fishing boats band together to thwart an attempt by Korea Coast Guard ships to stop alleged illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea.
Chinese fishing boats band together to thwart an attempt by Korea Coast Guard ships to stop alleged illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea. Park Young-Chul/AFP/Getty Images

Fishing provides a critical source of food and income for many countries, but much of it occurs unlawfully, harming vulnerable populations and eroding maritime governance.  

June 4, 2021 1:06 pm (EST)

Chinese fishing boats band together to thwart an attempt by Korea Coast Guard ships to stop alleged illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea.
Chinese fishing boats band together to thwart an attempt by Korea Coast Guard ships to stop alleged illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea. Park Young-Chul/AFP/Getty Images
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing—known as IUU fishing—is a global scourge. Carried out by malicious actors in the shadows of the world’s oceans, it can devastate ecosystems, degrade food stocks, and undermine fragile fishing economies. A broad network of international partners, including U.S. civilian and military agencies, should work to eradicate this threat to the world’s shared prosperity.

What is IUU fishing?

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Illegal fishing refers to fishing activities in contravention of applicable laws and regulations. Unreported fishing refers to fishing activities that are not reported or are misreported to relevant authorities. And unregulated fishing is done by vessels without nationality or that are not regulated by their flag state, the country in which a vessel is registered. It also occurs when vessels fish in areas or for stocks for which there are no applicable conservation or management measures.

Where is it happening?

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IUU fishing is a global problem, occurring in the South China Sea, off the west coast of Africa (where estimates put illegal catch at 40 percent), off both coasts of South America, in the eastern Indian Ocean, throughout Oceania, and around Antarctica. According to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s IUU Fishing Index, which benchmarks countries’ vulnerability to, prevalence of, and response to IUU fishing, four of the top five worst-scoring countries are in Southeast Asia. China tops the list, and Russia is the sole non–Southeast Asian country, at number four.

In one particularly egregious example last year, a fleet of 350 Chinese vessels was observed conducting predatory high seas fishing around Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, a UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site. The fleet was targeting squid and scooping up other valuable and vulnerable marine life. Locals sounded the alarm, fearing the vessels were depleting fish populations, hurting the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen in the islands, and devastating the sensitive ecosystem. Ecuador called for help, and the U.S. Coast Guard deployed a national security cutter to help patrol the area.

What are the concerns?

IUU fishing threatens ocean ecosystems, including sustainable fisheries, which are critical to global food security, and it puts those that abide by the law in the United States and abroad at a disadvantage. In 2020, the U.S. Coast Guard said that IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat. It is estimated that up to one in every five fish caught around the world is obtained through IUU fishing, representing about a $23 billion annual loss for the legal fishing industry. And, in large part, the poorest countries in the world, which depend on fisheries for food and livelihoods, are hit the hardest.

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Fish is an essential protein source for over 40 percent of the global population. IUU fishing can decimate fish stocks, undermining a country’s ability to feed its people. Further, IUU fishing can disrupt and destabilize fragile economies of coastal states. Small island nations are particularly vulnerable, in that many have vast ocean resources but very limited capacity to patrol their exclusive economic zones, or EEZs. Many of these small nations also struggle to apprehend and prosecute transgressors.

What is the threat beyond the illegal fishing itself?

IUU fishing often happens along with other unlawful activities, including human trafficking and forced labor. Interpol reports that fishing vessels are often used to smuggle people, drugs, and weapons, as well as to carry out acts of piracy and terrorism. IUU fishing activities are highly mobile, increasingly sophisticated, and sometimes conducted with logistical and security support from fishers’ flag states.

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These acts undermine internationally recognized fishing regimes, the work of regional fisheries management organizations, and international bodies such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Fisheries Division. Broadly speaking, it erodes collective global maritime governance.

How does the United States work to combat IUU fishing?

Various U.S. government agencies work with foreign partners or participate in different multilateral forums to combat IUU fishing. For instance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration works with the United Nations and regional fisheries management organizations. The U.S. military, particularly the coast guard and navy, provides maritime security assistance and training to coastal state partners in regions around the world. At the same time, the United States works to model responsible maritime behavior through a strict fisheries management program and ranks in the top five countries [PDF] in the world in responding to IUU fishing.

What can other governments do to fight IUU fishing?

Roles and responsibilities for a government vary depending on its relationship to the vessel and the catch. A vessel’s flag state has exclusive authority over it on the high seas, including with regard to matters such as labor standards and ship safety. Therefore, flag states must ensure that regulations are in place and enforced to deter IUU fishing and associated crimes from occurring on their vessels. Ignoring the duties of being a flag state can, and often does, allow illegal activity to take place. In addition, there are particularly concerning cases where flag states willfully abet IUU perpetrators by encouraging or assisting vessels that encroach on sovereign waters and EEZs of other nations or intimidate local fishermen.

Port states also can play a significant role by blocking vessels engaged in IUU fishing from using their ports and landing their catches. Governments have a framework to do so pursuant to the Agreement on Port State Measures, a UN treaty that came into force in 2016 and was the first binding international agreement that specifically targets IUU fishing. Approximately one-third of the world’s countries are party to it, but UN members should collectively work to increase that number.

Meanwhile, coastal states have a responsibility to assist in curbing IUU fishing. They are responsible for conservation and management of the ocean resources to which they have sovereign rights (within their EEZs). Finally, market states, where the fish are sold, should work to ensure that their seafood is coming from legal, legitimate sources.

What other multilateral efforts are there?

IUU fishing can only be combated by a whole-of-world approach, presenting an opportunity for state-to-state cooperation. Regional fisheries management organizations are working with the International Maritime Organization to boost accountability requirements aboard commercial fishing vessels across the globe. Other international bodies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are contributing to the fight as well. Interpol’s Project Scale is succeeding in catching much illegal fishing. Technology initiatives such as the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Oversea Ocean Monitor and Global Fishing Watch’s satellite-based platforms have been highly effective tools for spotting suspect activity across large spans of the ocean. And NGOs such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Greenpeace, which operate on contributions from private donors with vessels crewed by volunteers, also help build maritime domain awareness.

The world needs to collectively continue to fight the scourge of IUU fishing in order to protect sensitive marine environments and food sustainability, prevent irreparable damage to coastal economies, counter corruption and associated criminal activity, and uphold the sovereignty and security of the world’s maritime nations.

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