Combating, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is an international priority. IUU fishing contributes to the overfishing of stocks around the globe by circumventing existing management systems and undermining the sustainability of all fisheries, the communities that depend on them, and food security. The large number of developing countries that depend on fisheries for food security and export income are particularly vulnerable. IUU fishing is a critical issue today because many fish stocks have already been overexploited by legal fishing activities. IUU fishing therefore puts fish stocks under additional pressure. It pays little or no heed to fisheries management plans, which are intended to conserve overexploited or depleted stocks. Furthermore, IUU fishing vessels often operate in marine protected areas, which exacerbates the problem of overfishing. Moreover, non-target species, such as sharks, Bryde’s whales and whale sharks, dolphins, rays and turtles, become trapped in the illegal fishing nets. These unwanted species, known as by-catch, are tossed back into the ocean, most often dead from entanglement in nets.
Another damaging result of IUU fishing is that small artisanal fishermen must compete with corporate fleets, where fish caught off coastal waters are shipped to lucrative markets in the US, Canada, China, etc. destroying the livelihoods of local artisanal fishermen. Commercial fleets are also going deeper in the ocean and farther down the food chain for viable catches. This is triggering a chain reaction that is upsetting the ancient and delicate balance of the sea’s biologic system.
Researchers are engaged in the process of collating data on IUU from various countries. Estimates are unreliable, as these are covert, black market activities. Some experts put the annual figure at 11 million tons of fish/seafood caught illegally; others suggest that it may be as high as 26 million tons – equal to approximately 33 percent of the world’s total legal catch in 2011. Although the data fluctuates, all experts agree that IUU fishing is one of the largest threats to ocean ecosystems and is putting increasing pressure on the ocean’s ability to sustain human life.
A further reason why IUU fishing takes place on such a large scale is that it can be practiced with impunity. In a comprehensive analysis of IUU fishing worldwide, researchers concluded that IUU fishing is mainly practiced in countries which have weak governance: large-scale corruption, limited financial resources, ambivalent legislation, and a lack of will or capacity to enforce existing legislation.
International laws and agreements exist to protect ocean wildlife and marine habitats, but are extremely difficult to enforce because of insufficient economic resources, lack of political will, and complex and changing transnational boundaries that blur jurisdiction. Developing nations, in particular, lack the resources, vessels and personnel to enforce both international and national laws and regulations.
The human element of IUU fishing: IUU fishing exacts a strong human toll on the fishing industry. Because there are fewer and fewer fish, boats are required to stay at sea longer and go out farther, which results in higher costs, particularly for fuel, the highest cost on any vessel. As fishing vessels must stay at-sea longer to catch fewer and fewer fish, costs such as fuel and fishing gear are non-negotiable, resulting in labor expenses being dramatically cut. This means fewer crew doing more work, for less pay. Exploitation among impoverished fishermen is growing. Conglomerate shipping companies fishing illegally are sometimes involved in human trafficking. For example, vulnerable Indonesian fisherman are paid $200 a month (frequently less) and sign unjust working agreements where they are oppressed on a daily basis. These men are required to live at sea for months (sometimes years) at a time without contact with their family. This happens most often when smaller fishing vessels transfer their illegally caught fish onto larger refrigerated transport ships (reefers). The smaller fishing vessels are restocked with fuel and supplies at the same time, requiring fisherman to remain at sea. Sexual and physical assault have been documented. If the fishermen complain, they will not be paid and, more often than not, can lose their homes, and sometimes their lives. Adding to the complexity of IUU fishing, national and regional networks supporting illegal fishing may also be involved in other illicit activity and transnational crime, including human rights abuses, forced labor, tax evasion, and drug trafficking.
In addition to destroying the biodiversity of our oceans, few places on the planet are as lawless as the high seas, where egregious crimes are routinely committed with impunity. Violence among fishing boats is widespread and getting worse. Technological advancements and the increased use of so-called fish-aggregating devices — floating objects that attract schools of fish — have heightened tensions as fishermen are more prone to crowd the same spots. Catches shrink, tempers fray, fighting starts. Prosecutions for crimes at sea are rare because many ships lack insurance and captains are averse to the delays and prying that can come with a police investigation. The few military and law enforcement ships that patrol international waters are usually forbidden from boarding ships flying another country’s flag unless given permission. Witnesses willing to speak up are scarce; so is physical evidence. At sea, anonymity is the rule. Checking boats for human rights abuses is also difficult. Most fishing vessels are exempt from international rules requiring the onboard tracking systems used by law enforcement.
Report by The Stimson Center:
The 2017 report by the Stimson Center analyzed the effects of IUU fishing from a national security perspective.
- According to the Food and Agriculture Association of the US, 90 percent of fisheries are fully exploited, or overexploited and depleted. However, many independent experts believe this is even higher, due to the illicit nature and pervasiveness of illegal fishing.
- 20-50 percent of global fish catch is either illegally caught, mislabeled, never reported, or from a fishery without a management regime.
- Profits from illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing are estimated to be between $15.5 and $36.4 billion a year, more than the total gross domestic product of some of the countries where this is a major issue.
- Illegal fishing threatens the food supply chain for poor coastal communities. Oceans support the livelihoods of an estimated 520 million people who rely on fishing and fishing related activities, and 2.6 billion people who depend on fish as an important part of their diet. In many developing countries, 50 percent of their animal protein comes from seafood.
- IUU fishing poses 6 main threats to security and stability worldwide: threat to ecological security, economic security, food security, and geopolitical stability, as well as threats of maritime piracy and transnational organized crime.
- Sometimes, illegal fishing vessels hold people trapped as slaves on board. Because the United States imports more than 90 percent of its seafood, product caught by modern day slaves enters the supply chain.