Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Printer-Friendly Version

Illegal Unreported Unregulated Fishing

by the Environmental Justice Foundation

At a time when world fish stocks are under unprecedented pressure, pirate fishing operations are stealing from our seas and oceans; undermining attempts at sustainable management; causing massive damage to the marine environment; and jeopardising the food security and livelihoods of poor coastal communities in developing countries.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) or "pirate" fishing is considered by leading experts as one of the most serious threats to the achievement of sustainable fish stocks, with recent studies putting the worldwide value of these illicit catches at up to US$9 billion a year.

At a time when world fish stocks are under unprecedented pressure, pirate fishing operations are stealing from our seas and oceans; undermining attempts at sustainable management; causing massive damage to the marine environment; and jeopardising the food security and livelihoods of poor coastal communities in developing countries.

Why does IUU fishing occur?

Super trawler in Las Palmas harbour. Once fish - legal or illegal - is unloaded in Las Palmas, Spain, it undergoes no further scrutiny from EU buyers.<br />© Greenpeace

Super trawler in Las Palmas harbour. Once fish - legal or illegal - is unloaded in Las Palmas, Spain, it undergoes no further scrutiny from EU buyers

IUU fishing is a symptom of the wider crisis in world fisheries. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, 75% of commercially important marine stocks are currently overfished, or are being fished at their biological limit. Faced with dwindling fish stocks some governments have now woken up to the seriousness of the situation and put in place a range of management and conservation measures.

However, as the global demand for fish and seafood continues to grow, an incentive exists for fishermen to ignore such handicaps in an attempt to make lucrative short-term gains, albeit at the expense of longer-term environmental, economic and social objectives. With a single bluefin tuna fish selling for in excess of US$100,000 on the Japanese sashimi market, operators are cashing in on the vast profits to be made.

IUU fishing substantially minimises the operating costs for vessel owners who can avoid paying for licences, onboard observers, vessel monitoring systems or catch documentation systems, and in many areas IUU fleets specifically target commercially valuable species, such as tuna, Patagonian toothfish, shrimp and lobster. However, IUU fishing can also decimate far less lucrative stocks, but ones that nonetheless provide very important food sources and employment opportunities for people in developing countries.

Alongside the obvious economic incentives, IUU activities are facilitated by a number of well-documented shortcomings in national and international controls, including Flags of Convenience; insufficient Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) in Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and on the high seas; Ports of Convenience, and uncontrolled at-sea transshipment.

a) Flags of Convenience
A flag of convenience ship is one that flies the flag of a country other than the country of ownership - this makes it virtually impossible for unscrupulous ship owners to be caught and punished for illegal fishing. A major portion of IUU fishing could be eliminated if the loophole in international law that allows states to issue Flags of Convenience was closed.

b) Monitoring at sea
IUU fishing can thrive in areas where monitoring, control and surveillance activities (patrol boats, surveillance aircraft, satellite monitoring, onboard observers, etc) are insufficient. For example, in many developing states a lack of available resources, combined with large areas to police and the high costs of enforcement mean that fishing vessels can operate with impunity. Similarly, MCS on the high seas (the waters beyond 200 miles from the coast) is extremely difficult due to the huge areas and costs involved, and is therefore an environment in which IUU fishing can flourish.

c) At-sea transshipment
One of the main ways in which IUU fishing can remain undetected is by vessels trans-shipping their catch at sea. Large vessels remain at sea for months at a time, refueling, re-supplying and rotating their crews. By transferring their catches onto transport ships (reefers) IUU fishing vessels never need enter ports with their illegally caught fish. Moreover, the illegally caught fish is laundered by mixing with legally caught fish onboard transport vessels.

d) Ports of Convenience
All fishing vessels must at some point visit a port to land their catch, refuel and take on provisions, and IUU vessels are no exception. Regulating access to port facilities states can therefore be a highly effective way of controlling IUU fishing. However, certain ports fail to do so and the existence of such "Ports of Convenience" is seen as one of the major reasons that IUU fishing continues to occur. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is a major Port of Convenience, providing services to IUU fleets operating off the coast of West Africa, and hosting a number of companies that operate IUU vessels. It also serves as a gateway through which illegally caught fish can enter onto the huge EU market: from Las Palmas it can be transported anywhere within the EU with virtually no further inspection as to its origin.

e) Penalties
Even in the unlikely event that a vessel is caught engaging in IUU activities the penalties faced by the crew, captain and vessel owner are often too small to act as an effective disincentive, and are therefore seen simply as a cost of doing business. To take the EU as an example: in 2003 more than 10% of vessels on the EU's fishing register (some 86,585 vessels) were fined for committing serious infringements of fisheries rules. However, EU vessel owners paid only 28.7 million Euros in penalties for breaking the law and over-fishing, fines that represent just 0.004% of the value of fish landed at EU ports in 2002.

Fines imposed on (EU) vessel owners not only need to be drastically increased, however, they are also in urgent need of harmonization. Currently, penalties vary hugely between member states with, for example, illegal fishing in Belgium incurring an average fine of just €375 as opposed to €19,255 in the UK.

How widespread is IUU fishing?

IUU fishing is a global phenomenon, occurring in virtually all fisheries from shallow coastal waters to the deep oceans. Accurate data on the scope and scale of IUU fishing is hard to come by as it is in essence a clandestine activity. A recent report commissioned by the UK Department for International Development estimated that the total annual value of IUU fishing worldwide (for the years 2003-2005) is between US$2.4bn and US$9.5bn, thus accounting for a significant proportion of global catches.

  • A UK government report recently suggested that up to 50% of the cod landed in Britain is so-called "black fish", caught illegally outside EU quotas. Further industry estimates have claimed that 50% of all pelagic fish (mostly herring and mackerel) landed in the UK is done so illegally, in a trade worth up to £100 million a year. Britain's black fish trade was recently exposed by the prosecution of the skipper and mate of the Shetland-based Altaire, the largest and fastest fishing trawler in Britain. In a sophisticated international racket involving processing firms in Denmark and Norway, the Altaire was found to have illegally landed more than 7,500 tonnes of mackerel and herring, worth £3.4 million, in Denmark between March 2000 and March 2002.
  • The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) - the intergovernmental organization responsible for managing tuna fishing in the Indian Ocean - estimates IUU catches to be around 10% of reported catches, amounting to 130,000 tonnes annually.
  • A recent study of the shark fin trade in Hong Kong estimated that between 66% and 80% of global shark catches are unreported - catches estimated to be worth $292-476 million in shark fin value alone.


from Food and Argicultural Organization, March, 2005

The Ministerial Meeting also adopted a second declaration calling for intensified action to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

As a new step in anti-IUU efforts, the group called for the creation within FAO of a comprehensive global record of fishing vessels, including supply and refrigerated transport ships, to facilitate prevention of illegal fishing.

Additionally, the countries said they would renew their efforts to ensure that all large-scale industrial fishing vessels operating on the high seas be fitted with vessel monitoring systems (VMS) by December 2008.

VMS involves putting monitoring units on vessels that transmit data on their location and activities. This allows authorities to remotely monitor ship activities in great detail, helping to both strengthen general fisheries management as well as to more effectively combat IUU fishing.

The ministers also acknowledged the need to strengthen Regional Fisheries Management Organizations -- intergovernmental organizations that facilitate cooperation on management of high seas fishing -- to make them more effective in preventing IUU fishing.

FAO has identified IUU fishing as major impediment to the achievement of sustainable world fisheries. Combating it outside countries' exclusive economic zones on the high seas, where governance is particular complex, is not easy.

The talks capped off a week of discussions on responsible fisheries and aquaculture by 600 representatives of 137 governments during a meeting of FAO's Committee on Fisheries (COFI), held 7-11 March at the Organization's Rome headquarters. Some 43 intergovernmental organizations and 28 nongovernmental organizations also participated.

  • Publication date: