What’s the problem?

Our oceans are in peril. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 91.1% of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or overexploited. With the introduction of modern industrial fishing techniques the industry has reached a crushing over-capacity that has already decimated a vast range of global fish populations.

The impact of mismanaged legal fisheries on marine biodiversity is enough cause for concern without the environmental degradation caused by Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. Unauthorized and uncontrolled fishing allows vulnerable fish populations very little, if any, time to recover from legal overfishing, worsening an already dire situation.

The sheer vastness of our oceans (71% of the Earth’s surface) combined with an alarming lack of internationally recognized and reinforced regulations to conserve and protect marine living resources, greatly amplifies the scale and severity of this issue.

State of global marine fisheries

State of global marine fisheries


Shareholders of global fisheries.

Shareholders of global fisheries.

FAO estimates that catches within IUU fisheries can be as high as 26 million tons per year with an estimated value of up to U$23 billion. This suggests that IUU fisheries are the biggest player in global fisheries.

China stands alone as having the biggest legal marine and inland fishery production with 16.2 million tons of fish and seafood being processed in 2012. Total global legal marine and inland fishery production reached 91.3 million tons in 2012. This leaves IUU fisheries responsible for a quarter of the fisheries catch taken worldwide. FAO estimates that in some important fisheries, IUU fishing may even account for up to 30 percent of total catches; in one instance FAO has indicated that IUU catches could be as high as three times the designated quota. It is undeniable that the current level of fisheries exploitation is unsustainable.

IUU fishing activities are a threat not only in regard to depletion of fish stocks and the destruction of global marine ecosystems, but also to the livelihood of coastal communities, the fishing industry, socio-economic development and maritime safety.

Illegal trawler off Gabon’s coast. Developing countries suffer particularly severely from IUU fisheries. Photo: Mike Markovina/Marine Photobank

Illegal trawler off Gabon´s coast. Developing countries suffer particularly severely from IUU fisheries.

Global fisheries since 1950.

Global fisheries since 1950.

How is IUU fishing defined?

Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is a broad term used to describe a variety of fishing activities that are illicit. IUU fishing often occurs on the High Seas, within the boundary of Regional Fisheries Management Organisations and inside the 200nm Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of coastal states. But the problem also arises in river and inland fisheries. Estimates of catch sizes show that the state of marine fisheries in particular has reached disastrous levels.

Illegal catches are hauled by both authorized and unauthorized fishers, as well as by national and foreign vessels operating under flags of convenience or by ships flagged by states that are not signatories to international fishing and conservation agreements.


Division of coastal waters and the High Seas according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Source: New Zealand Mininstry of Environment.

Division of coastal waters and the High Seas according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Illegal fishing entails fishing without a license, fishing with prohibited gear, fishing in a closed area or fishing for unauthorized species. It is conducted in waters under the jurisdiction of a State, without the permission of that State, or in contravention of its laws and regulations. Illegal fishing is also conducted when vessels flagged by states that are parties to a fisheries management organisation act in contravention of international agreements. Illegal fishing is, by definition, wrongful, unlawful and therefore indefensible.

Unreported fishing refers to fishing activities that have not been reported, have been misreported or have been under-reported. Unreported fishing often occurs in coastal areas, where licensed fishing vessels exceed their quota and declare fewer catch figures or none at all. Any fishing activity that must be reported and is not (or is misreported) is also wrongful, unlawful and inexcusable.

Unregulated fishing takes place mostly on the High Seas, which cover more than 40% of the world’s surface and are beyond any national jurisdiction and EEZs. Ships engaged in unregulated fishing on the High Seas fly a flag of convenience, constantly change flags or in some extreme situations no flag at all and thereby circumnavigate laws and agreements of the international community. Unregulated fishing also occurs in areas or for fish stocks to which there are no applicable conservation or management measures in place.

Unregulated fishing is not always illegal as it does not necessarily involve breaking national law, even though it might breach international agreements. Nevertheless, this type of fishing is more than capable of decimating fish and other marine wildlife populations.

The lack of jurisdiction on the High Seas results in minimal enforcement and prosecution and entices fishermen and criminal syndicates into the practice of illegal and unregulated fishing.

In summary IUU fishing occurs in violation of – or at least with disregard for – applicable fisheries rules, whether adopted at the national or international level and counters the achievements of marine conservation efforts of the international community.

Click here to access the official definition of IUU fisheries by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)

IUU vessels operate on all seas. Photo: CCAMLR

IUU vessels operate on all seas.


Many IUU vessels change their names and flags regulary to avoid prosecution. Photo CCAMLR

Many IUU vessels change their names and flags regulary to avoid prosecution.


An IUU vessel offloads its catch at sea. Such transshipments frequently facilitate the laundering of IUU fish. Photo: Kieran Kelleher/Marine Photobank

An IUU vessel offloads its catch at sea. Such transshipments frequently facilitate the laundering of IUU fish.

What are the impacts of IUU fisheries?

It is extremely difficult to quantify the scale of IUU fisheries and their impact on the marine ecosystem due to the very nature of the crimes being unreported and unmonitored. Additionally our understanding of fish stocks and their dynamics is still far from complete. While we can work with estimates and likely scenarios, even the most modest of these provide an alarming outlook of the destruction that is spreading across our oceans.

What we do know is that global fish stocks are in decline. In 2014, 93% of the fish stocks assessed by the EU in the Mediterranean were classified as overfished. In the last decade North Atlantic commercial fish populations of cod, hake, haddock and flounder have fallen by as much as 95%. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that 5 out of the 8 tuna species are threatened or at a risk of extinction. Recent reports suggest that overfishing has caused a 90% decline in predatory fish populations across the world’s oceans. A study by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in California predicted that, based on current global trends, every species of wild-caught seafood may collapse by the year 2048.

We also know that IUU fisheries contribute significantly to overfishing. According to FAO, up to one third of global catches may be caught illegally or remain unreported. Un- or misreported catches make sustainable fisheries unworkable and jeopardize all conservation measures. This is especially true where IUU fishing targets an already depleted stock and juveniles or occurs in areas usually closed to fishing.


Since 1950 stocks of big fish have been falling by 90%.

Since 1950 stocks of big fish have been falling by 90%.


Since 1950 stocks of big fish have been falling by 90%.

Decrease of marine fish biomass.

In addition to the direct impacts on the targeted species, there are many other threats and issues associated with IUU fishing. One indirect problem that is synonymous with commercial and IUU fishing operations is bycatch. Bycatch consists of species that are caught alongside targeted species. The FAO estimates that one third of the global catch is discarded as bycatch. At this point the fish is already dead. Bycatch isn’t limited to commonly fished species or fish of unfavourable sizes, but may also include whales, dolphins, seabirds, turtles, sharks, rays and other forms of marine wildlife. This can have a significant impact on the populations of many species, especially if they are slow growing and/or slow to reproduce. The use of banned and destructive fishing gear devastates sea floors, reefs and leads to even greater amounts of bycatch.

Fishing nets that are discarded in the ocean rather than being disposed of in port, turn into drift-nets or ‘ghost-nets’. Ghost-nets float around in the oceans for decades, indiscriminately injuring and killing marine wildlife they encounter. These consequences of IUU fisheries undermine productivity and biological diversity in our oceans and pose a serious threat to marine habitats.

IUU fisheries are causing extensive economic problems and losses. IUU fisheries land U$23 billion worth of fish, a huge catch they don’t pay taxes on. On top of that according to a 2008 UN report, the world’s fishing fleets are losing US$50 billion each year through depleted stocks and poor fisheries management.

A loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) falls victem to fisheries. Loggerhead turtles are endangered. Every year about 200,000 die as bycatch. Photo: NOAA

A loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) falls victem to fisheries. Loggerhead turtles are endangered. Every year about 200,000 die as bycatch.

A sea lion suffocates in agony trapped in a ghost-net. Photo: Save Our Seas Ltd./Tom Campbell-Marine Photobank

A sea lion suffocates in agony trapped in a ghost-net. Photo: Save Our Seas Ltd./Tom Campbell-Marine Photobank

The theft of global fish stocks is causing severe damage to coastal communities and small scale fisheries, especially in developing countries. Plundering resources vital to local fishermen is a menace to food security and poverty alleviation. The inability of poor states to control and manage fisheries in their waters properly, leads to enormous financial losses.

Many firms that practice illegal fishing operate vessels with flags that provide low to no standards of social protection or safety at sea. The lack of international regulations and standards on-board such ships leads to appalling living, safety and working conditions. Fishermen crewing on these vessels often work without contracts and/or insurance. On top of this, they will often receive little to none of the pay they are promised. Forced labour and the abandonment of crew in foreign ports is also common practice on illegal fishing vessels.

Most IUU fishing activities are recognized as poaching operations. IUU fisheries are often involved in transnational and organized crime indulging piracy, slavery, tax evasion, money laundering, drug and human trafficking. Vessels involved in IUU fishing rob the global community of fish and act with complete disregard to national and international law.

Artisan fisheries provide food and income for less and less people. Industrial and IUU fisheries are emptying the seas of fish, taditionel methods don’t yield profitable catches anymore. Photo: Mohammad Mahmudur Rahman, CC 3.0

Artisan fisheries provide food and income for less and less people. Industrial and IUU fisheries are emptying the seas of fish, taditionel methods don’t yield profitable catches anymore.

Who engages in IUU fishing?

A variety of vessels and operators are involved in IUU fishing. Often vessels that hold a license catch over quota, fish prohibited species or under/misreport sizes as well as species. These practices are also deemed IUU fishing. But vessels operating entirely illegally, whether national or foreign, also exist. IUU fishing is committed by small scale poachers as well as internationally operated organized crime syndicates.

The global fishing fleet continues to grow despite fish stocks being in a state of constant decline. The FAO estimated the total number of fishing vessels in 2012 to be 4.72 million; 3.2 million of those were operating in marine waters. The global fishing fleet far exceeds what is needed to fulfill all the world’s fishing quotas. One must therefore ask the question, why are there so many fishing vessels and what are they all doing?

 

The port city Karachi in Pakistan. The scale of the global fishing fleet is overwhelming. Photo: Murtaza Imran Ali, CC 2.0

The port city Karachi in Pakistan. The scale of the global fishing fleet is overwhelming.

It is a requirement that every ship is registered to a flag state. Once registered the ship is then bound to the laws and regulations of the issuing nation. Traditional registries will only accept ships whose owners are citizens of the flag state. Registries that are open to foreign-owned ships are known as open registries; within them is what is known as flags of convenience.

Flags of conveniences have substandard regulations that allow ship owners to reduce operating costs and evade international law. Taxes and wages are minimal, standards of number and qualifications of the crews are low, safety requirements and control by authorities are lacking. Flags of conveniences hardly encourage registered ships within to regard conservation law and fishery agreements. Additionally, flags of conveniences may help to conceal the true ownership of a vessel. This opens the doors to further criminal activities.

The magnitude of the IUU fishing fleet is of great concern. In 2005, 14 flag states known to provide flags of convenience registered 1,267 high sea fishing vessels alone. Only 188 of those ships held a fishing license. The evidence available to us suggests that a substantial number of these unlicensed ships would have become involved in illicit fishing activities.

IUU fishing utilizes the same aspects of industrialization found within legal fishing operations and the IUU fleet itself is surprisingly modern and well equipped. 12% of large-scale fishing vessels built between 2001 and 2003 were flying flags of convenience or were listed as “flag unknown”.

The estimated number of large industrialized vessels currently operating in marine waters is 64,000. This figure is around three times higher than the number of fishing vessels registered with the International Maritime Organization (IMO). It is likely that an overwhelming number of these vessels are built and run to engage in IUU fishing.

Honduras is known to be a state with a flag of convenience. A huge percentace of large scale fishing vessels are registered here, many of them don’t hold a fishing license. Photo: J Stephen Conn, CC 2.0

Honduras is known to be a state with a flag of convenience. A huge percentace of large scale fishing vessels are registered here, many of them don’t hold a fishing license.

Why does IUU fishing occur?

For the consumer it is impossible to distinguish IUU ‘black fish’ from legally caught fish. At virtually every step of the way, from the initial haul to transshipment, processing, landing and retail, right up to the point of sale to the consumer; IUU operators have found ways to mix black fish with legal catches. This clearly shows that the current supply chain control is fragmented and unreliable. For example, studies estimate that half of the fish sold in Europe is illegally caught. Black fish are in supermarkets, not on black markets.

The world's appetite for fish is steadily increasing. The strong market demand makes IUU fisheries even more appealing and profitable.

The strong market demand makes IUU fisheries very profitable.

The world’s appetite for fish is steadily increasing. Global per capita consumption skyrocketed from an average of 9.9kg in the 1960s to 19.2kg in 2012. There are now more than twice as many people, each eating twice as many fish. Such amounts can hardly be produced in a sustainable manner, which only serves to make IUU fishing more profitable. Species are pushed towards extinction and increase in rarity and price.

With combined profits of IUU catch totaling around U$23 billion per year it should come as little surprise that the biggest motivation for IUU fisheries is financial gain. Strong market demand for particular fish species and products, the avoidance of taxes and costly maritime regulations together with little to no national and international law enforcement, ineffective monitoring and control systems and low penalties for infringements all go towards making IUU caught fish a highly profitable commodity. IUU fishing is a low risk, high income undertaking.

If one buys fish chances are they directly contribute to IUU fisheries. Photo: Dave Allen, NIWA, CC 4.0

If one buys fish chances are they directly contribute to IUU fisheries.

Fish worth 23 bn U$ per year is caught illegally. IUU fishing is a low risk, high income undertaking. Photo: TaxCredits.net, CC 2.0

Fish worth U$23 bn. per year is caught illegally.

What is being done to stop it?

An international shortage of political will, poor policy prioritization, incapacity to govern and the lack of access to the resources necessary to ratify or accede the implementation of surveillance instruments have greatly hindered efforts to combat IUU fisheries.

Aquascope aspires to change this by developing and implementing more efficient and cost-worthy monitoring and enforcement systems!

Even with most IUU fishing occurring within the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of coastal states, governments fail to adequately manage and safeguard their waters and the enforcement of international laws and regulations on the High Seas remains almost non-existent.

To this day, the monitoring of fishing activities has proven costly and enforcement efforts have suffered from fragmentary channels of communications between different authorities. With its inability to control the trade of illegally caught fish, the global community has barely made a dent in the issue of IUU fisheries.

 

Fisheries at sea are hardly monitored. A whole industry proceeds almost uncontrolled. Photo: Christine Bastin & Jacques Evrard, CC 2.0

Fisheries at sea are hardly monitored. A whole industry proceeds almost uncontrolled.

Links

To learn more about IUU fisheries, figures and facts please see the following: