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Illegal fishing

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Illegal fishing

Patrol vessels like this Jamaican Coast Guard vessel are used for fisheries protection
Trawler arrested by the Norwegian Coast Guard for illegal fishing

Illegal fishing takes place where vessels operate in violation of the laws of a fishery. This can apply to fisheries that are under the jurisdiction of a coastal state or to high seas fisheries regulated by regional organisations.

Unreported fishing is fishing that has been unreported or misreported to the relevant national authority or regional organisation, in contravention of applicable laws and regulations.

Unregulated fishing generally refers to fishing by vessels without nationality, or vessels flying the flag of a country not party to the regional organisation governing that fishing area or species.

The drivers behind illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing are clear enough, and similar to those behind many other types of international environmental crime. Most obviously, pirate fishers have a strong economic incentive: many species of fish, particularly those that have been over-exploited and are thus in short supply, are of high value.

Such IUU activity may then show a high chance of success – i.e. a high rate of return – from the failure of governments to regulate adequately (e.g. inadequate coverage of international agreements), or to enforce national or international laws (e.g. because of lack of capacity, or poor levels of governance). A particular driver behind IUU fishing is the failure of a number of flag states to exercise any effective regulation over ships on their registers—which in turn creates an incentive for ships to register under these flags of convenience.

Since no-one is reporting catches made by pirates, their level of fishing cannot be accurately quantified. However, industry observers think that IUU occurs in most fisheries, and accounts for up to 30% of total catches in some important fisheries.[1]

Economic and environmental impacts

The most obvious economic impact of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing on developing countries is the direct loss of the value of the catches that could be taken by local fishermen if the IUU fishing was not taking place. Available estimates place the economic loss of illegal fishing to be between $10 billion to $23 billion annually.[2]

These losses include not only the loss to GNP, but revenue from landing fees, licence fees and taxes payable by legal fishing operators. In addition, there are indirect impacts in terms of loss of income and employment in related industries; any loss in income will also have impacts on the consumer demands of families working in the fishing industry.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing usually has a significant impact on the sustainability of both the targeted species and the ecosystem.

Fishing generally has the capacity to damage fragile marine ecosystems and vulnerable species such as coral reefs, turtles and seabirds. In fact, all eight sea turtle species are now endangered, and illegal fishing and hunting are two major reasons for their destruction. Regulating legitimate fisheries is aimed at mitigating such impacts, but IUU fishers rarely comply with regulations. This is likely to reduce productivity and biodiversity and create imbalances in the ecosystem.

This in turn may lead to reduced food security in communities heavily dependent on fish as a source of animal protein.

IUU fishing can also lead to increased pressure on endangered fish species. IUU can directly affect the population of fish species by increasing the number of fish caught within the population in spite of population management efforts by the international community. Indirectly, the substitution (mislabeling) of IUU caught fish for popular, but threatened or endangered species, increases the perceived supply of these species, thus decreasing the price and increasing the demand for the fish species.


Mandatory product certification and catch documentation are increasingly used as a natural extension of normal monitoring and enforcement in fisheries, and as a means of excluding IUU products from consumer markets and therefore rewarding responsible fishing with protected markets. The concept is increasingly common in other markets, including those for timber and for diamonds.

The use of certification or catch document schemes is encouraged in the FAO's International Plan of Action on IUU Fishing. Several RFMOs include them, including CCAMLR's Catch Documentation Scheme for Toothfish, CCSBT's Trade Information Scheme for Southern Bluefin Tuna and ICCAT's Bluefin Tuna Statistical Document Programme. Similar systems are applied at a national level, including the USA's Certification of Origin of Tuna and Tuna Tracking and Verification Systems, Japan's reporting requirements (including area of capture) for all imports or transportation of tunas into Japan by boat, and the EU’s labelling of all fish products (including area of capture).

Marine Stewardship Council

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international non-profit organization that runs a certification and ecolabelling program for traceable, sustainable seafood.

To achieve certification as sustainable a fishery must meet a standard based on three principles:

  1. ensuring healthy fish stocks
  2. minimal impact on the marine ecosystem
  3. effective management (which includes ensuring the fishery operates within national and international laws).

Fisheries that meet the MSC standard for a sustainable fishery can use the blue MSC ecolabel on their seafood products.

The second element of the program is a certification for seafood traceability. This is called MSC Chain of Custody. From the fishery, every company in the supply chain that handles the certified fish is checked to ensure the MSC label is only applied to fish products that come from a certified fishery. This requires effective record-keeping and storage procedures. This traceability element of the program helps to keep illegally fished seafood out of the supply chain by linking seafood sold in shops and restaurants to a certified sustainable fishery.

The MSC ecolabel enables consumers to easily identify sustainable seafood when shopping or dining out. As of April 2010, there are nearly 4,000 MSC-labelled seafood products sold in over 60 countries around the world. The MSC website lists outlets selling MSC-certified seafood.

The MSC-certified South Georgia Patagonian toothfish fishery provides a good example of how good fisheries management can reverse the trend of illegal fishing. The fishery took significant steps to exclude illegal vessels from its waters:

- Strict vessel licensing system is rigorously enforced with limited landing points, controlled by the port authorities.

- No transshipment is allowed.

- Every pound of fish landed is monitored through tamper-proof satellite surveillance of on-board weighing scales and GPS locations of vessels.

- On landing, boxed product is applied with a barcode label to ensure there is no introduction of illegal fish into the supply chain.

These are only some of the measures taken by the fishery to achieve MSC certification in March 2004. Further information on the South Georgia Patagonian toothfish fishery.

Responsible Fishing Scheme

The Responsible Fishing Scheme was launched in May 2006. It is an independent, audited assessment of the application of good practice by a vessel skipper and crew in their fishing operations. It has been developed to raise standards in the catching sector and demonstrate a vessel operates to industry good practice guidelines. The scheme helps to meet the needs of the seafood supply chain. The sector needs to provide tangible evidence and a practical demonstration of their commitment to the responsible sourcing of seafood. This scheme does just that. A vessel’s certification to the scheme is an assurance that the fish landed by that vessel has been caught responsibly. It will also give the vessel a tool to allow them to positively position itself in the global marketplace.

Based on a Publicly Available Specification developed by Seafish in collaboration with the British Standards Institution (BSI), the Responsible Fishing Scheme is a means of recognising responsible fishing practices for individual vessels operating in a diverse range of fisheries under international agreements. It covers five key areas, namely: environmental issues, fishing practices, crew competence, vessel criteria and record maintenance. Ultimately it is designed to promote and recognise good practice. As of March 2009 the scheme boasts 585 vessels in various stages of assessment with over 300 certified.[3]


Illegal and unreported fishing (two of the three components of IUU fishing) essentially arise from a failure to adequately enforce existing national and international laws. There are, however, many factors underlying enforcement failure, including, notably, poor levels of national governance.

There are obvious problems with enforcing fisheries regulations on the high seas, including locating and apprehending the pirate ships, but solutions are available, chiefly through improved monitoring and surveillance systems.

MSC systems are similarly of value within exclusive economic zones, including, for example, offshore patrols and licensing schemes.

Political processes

EU Action Plan

The EU played an active role in drawing up the FAO‘s international plan of action to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing, endorsed by the FAO Council in June 2001.

The EU then proceeded to develop its own plan to implement the commitments agreed at international level, and the European Commission‘s action plan for the eradication of IUU fishing was published in May 2002. It is intended to be implemented at four levels:

At the EU level, more responsibility will be requested with regard to member state nationals acting under a flag of convenience. Moreover, market measures concerning fisheries products caught in violation of the international agreements will be adopted. In addition, information actions addressed to the fishing industry, consumers, and the public will be launched to raise their awareness.

In the framework of Regional Fisheries Organisations, control and inspection plans would be adopted as well as specific conservation and management measures. In addition IUU vessels would be identified and monitored and their catches would be quantified.

At the international level, concepts like genuine link would be defined, and a number of rights and obligations of the port state would be established. Moreover, the exchange of information on IUU activities and the international co-operation would be strengthened.

In partnership with developing countries, the necessary means would be provided to enable them to effectively control fishing activities undertaken in waters under their jurisdiction.

High Seas Task Force

The High Seas Task Force comprises a group of fisheries ministers and international NGOs working together to develop an action plan designed to combat IUU fishing on the high seas.

Launched in 2003, the Task Force includes fisheries ministers from Australia, Canada, Chile, Namibia, New Zealand and the UK, together with the Earth Institute, IUCN-World Conservation Union, WWF International and the Marine Stewardship Council.

The goal of the Task Force is to set priorities among a series of practical proposals for confronting the challenge of IUU fishing on the high seas. A series of expert panels have been convened to identify the legal, economic, scientific and enforcement factors that permit IUU activity to thrive, and then determine key points of leverage that can brought to bear at national, regional, and global levels to minimise the incentives to carry out IUU fishing on the high seas. The completed action plan, published on 3 March 2006, will be placed by ministerial members of the Task Force directly in the hands of other ministers.

Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs)

Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) are affiliations of nations that co-ordinate efforts to manage fisheries in a particular region.

RFMOs may focus on certain species of fish (e.g. the Commission for the Conservation of here.

UN High Seas Processes

The present system of high seas governance has evolved over a period of several hundred years, the end result being a patchwork quilt of measures in the form of binding and non-binding instruments with different geographical and legal reaches and different levels of participation.

Most legal instruments build on the foundation established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was agreed in 1982 and entered into force in 1992.

The UN Fish Stocks Agreement, which entered into force in 2001, sets out principles for the conservation and management of fish stocks and establishes that such management must be based on the precautionary approach and the best available scientific information. The Agreement provides a framework for cooperation on conservation and management, but since only about a third of the parties to the Law of the Sea Convention have ratified it, its impact is inevitably limited.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) carries out much of the technical work on international fisheries management, and provides a forum for the negotiation of agreements and codes of conduct. In 1995 the FAO agreed its Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries to promote long-term sustainable management.

In 2001, the FAO adopted the International Plan of Action (IPOA) on IUU Fishing. The aim of this voluntary instrument is to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing by providing all states with comprehensive, effective and transparent measures by which to act, including through appropriate regional fisheries management organisations established in accordance with international law.

The FAO Compliance Agreement, which entered into force in 2003, is designed to close a major loophole in international fisheries management, that of the circumvention of fisheries regulations by ‘re-flagging‘ vessels under the flags of states that are unable or unwilling to enforce such measures.

In 2009, the FAO brokered a treaty between 92 nations (The agreement on port state measures to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing) that would close ports to vessels suspected of illegal fishing.[4] The treaty would require vessels request permission to dock and to inform the port details of its fishing operations. Permission to dock could be denied if unregulated fishing was occurring. The measure would help block illegally caught fish from entering the marketplace. Other measures in the treaty include inspections of equipment, paperwork, catches and ship's records. Though the treaty does not compel countries to apply these measures to ships under its own flag, they are free to include them under the agreement.[4][5]

See also


Further reading

  • The Seafish Guide to Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing Seafish Industry Authority
  • Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing
  • Stopping Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing
  • Morgan, Gary; Staples, Derek and Funge-Smith, Simon (2007) ISBN 978-92-5-005669-2
  • Swan, Judith (2004) FAO Fisheries Circular 996. ISSN 0429-9329
  • Agnew DJ, Pearce J, Pramod G, Peatman T, Watson R, Beddington JR and Pitcher TJ (2009) "Estimating the Worldwide Extent of Illegal Fishing" PLoS ONE 4(2): e4570.

External links

  • Illegal Fishing Data and Statistics: Havocscope Black Market
  • Report on the development Impact of the EU-IUU regulation on Commonwealth ACP Member Countries
  • Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) 'Save the Sea' campaign to end Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing - films, reports, photos
  • website
  • Marine Stewardship Council Website
  • High Seas Task Force Website
  • Closing The Net Website
  • Greenpeace IUU Blacklist Website
  • Review of Impacts of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing on Developing Countries, FINAL REPORT, July 2005
  • International Monitoring, Control and Surveillance Network
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