Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing

We have spent a lot of Seafood 101 talking about how good fisheries are. They are delicious, low-carbon protein that provide food and livelihood to millions of people. We’ve shown how management often dictates whether a fishery is sustainable or not, with good management having sustainable outcomes and poor management and depleted fisheries often caused by a lack of capacity that can be reversed with various management tools. But not every fishery is good. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is bad. In this post, we introduce each component of IUU fishing and discuss solutions.

Illegal & Unreported fishing

Because they have a lot of overlap and “IUU” is a nice acronym, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing are usually lumped together; however, there is lots of overlap between the three that makes estimating the problem difficult. The most comprehensive global study, published open access in 2009, examined illegal and unreported fishing in every exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and managed areas in the high seas from 2000-2003. The authors concluded that 11-26 million tons of fish, valued at 10-23.5 billion dollars were illegal or unreported per year. This was the first global study of its kind and set an extremely important baseline for future assessments. There were high correlations to capacity, as developing nations were much more susceptible to illegal fishing.

Illegal fishing can take on many forms—from poaching protected species, to using prohibited fishing gear, or taking fish at improper times or locations. Illegal fishing acts vary tremendously in scale. Using an improper fish hook is a relatively small offense compared to mass poaching that leads to depletion of a bycatch species: For example, the tototaba fish in the Sea of Cortez is illegal to catch; not only are population numbers low, they also live in the same area as the vaquita porpoise, the most endangered marine mammal on the planet. Vaquitas are often and easily trapped in the illegal gill nets used to catch totoaba. The fishery is largely responsible for the vaquita’s inevitable extinction (less than 100 individuals remain). Like many other illegal fishing practices, the totoaba fishery has social and environmental justice underpinnings—just one totoaba can fetch thousands of dollars and drag a fisherman’s family out of poverty.

Unreported fishing is a kind of illegal fishing, but is separately noted for its impact on future sustainability: The most important piece of data to determine the sustainable limit for next year’s catch is the amount of fish that was caught this year; if that number is wrong (misreported), the stock assessment can be compromised and future sustainability jeopardized.

Transnational Stealing

Global fisheries’ biggest (illegal) problem is transnational stealing, where foreign fishing boats enter other countries’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and fish without permission. This is stealing. Furthermore, it is a serious environmental justice issue as in almost every case of transnational stealing, the boats originate from wealthy countries and steal from poorer countries that lack capacity for enforcement. Over 40% of the world’s illegal fishing happens off the coast of Western Africa where boats, mainly from Asia & Europe, go to steal fish.

However, new tools and approaches to management may soon turn the tide of illegal fishing. A promising new tool/database tracks fishing boat movement using the boats’ automatic identification system (AIS). The goal is to pressure governments to crack down on their boats that go to other countries to fish illegally. Below is a figure produced for Cabral et al. 2018 that maps every boat originating in one country but fishing in another’s EEZ. It is important to note that this is every transnational boat, both legal and illegal; the figure clearly illustrates which countries have low fishing capacity that leads to foreign vessels fishing their waters (West Africa & Pacific Islands).

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From Cabral et al. 2018

Some developing countries are taking dramatic management measures to curb illegal fishing: Five years ago, Indonesia was losing 3 billion dollars of fish per year to transnational thieves. But in 2014, a large investment into management and enforcement (capacity building!) greatly increased the number ships caught fishing illegally. Indonesia also began a brutal new management approach to enforcement and has been blowing up the illegal boats. This new approach has been effective at curbing illegal fishing, but the ruthless nationalism is damaging Indonesia’s diplomatic reputation. This is a fascinating case study with many sides, arguments, and questions. Should Indonesia sacrifice diplomacy to improve its fisheries? Are there other, less severe ways to curb illegal fishing? Perhaps diplomacy could pressure foreign countries to police their boats instead? What are the human costs of destroying boats? What are the human costs of illegal fishing? This will certainly be an interesting situation to keep an eye on.

Unregulated fishing and High Seas fishing

Unregulated fishing is fishing for species that are not managed. Fishing unmanaged fisheries can be sustainable (or not), but regulation is preferred because of data and monitoring that comes from it. Sometimes these fisheries occur in a country’s EEZ, but most often unregulated fisheries refer to fishing beyond the 200 mile boundary in the lawless high seas that cover over half of the ocean. Though, not all of the high seas are unregulated: international regulatory bodies called regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) have been established to manage fisheries in some parts of the high seas, yet around 40% of the high seas remain unmanaged.

Fishing on the high seas is comparable to transnational fisheries, except there is no legality or illegality—it is simply fishing in nobody’s (or everybody’s?) ocean. The geopolitical and moral implications invite controversy and debate among scientists, conservationists, and political actors. Some have called for all of the high seas to be closed to fishing, while others believe they serve an important role in food security and sustainability. We featured a 4-part discussion among scientists debating the high seas issue here. Either way, talks have started at the United Nations to come to an international agreement on high seas management, not just for fishing, but also for other high seas uses like seabed mining and oil drilling.

Ending IUU fishing

There are several ways to fight IUU fishing. Wealthy countries that steal fish from low-capacity countries should police their fishing fleet to unburden other countries. Those low-capacity countries being taken advantage of should invest in better enforcement & management—building management capacity is the best way to combat IUU fishing. Indonesia provides an interesting model that can be built upon and/or altered. Conservation organizations should help build capacity in the underdeveloped world and lobby wealthy countries to reform transnational fisheries policies.

On the individual & market side, traceability through the supply chain, or knowing where a piece of seafood is caught is one of the best ways to ensure fish was not caught illegally. Most packaging labels or restaurants can tell you what country a piece of seafood is from (we wrote an entire section on labeling seafood). There is also a strong consumer demand for traceable seafood as learning the story behind a meal has become a popular marketing technique for many restaurants and fish mongers.


This post is part of Sustainable Seafood 101

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Seafood in a Global Context

Commercial Fishing

People & Fish