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U.N. campaign targets illicit fishing


Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing disrupts food supplies, steals revenue from legitimate operators, depletes fisheries and damages marine ecosystems worldwide.

The United Nations’ “International Day for the Fight Against Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing” on June 5, 2022, calls attention to efforts to halt this destructive practice.

The humanitarian and economic fallout of illicit fishing is significant in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere. Each year it deprives the world’s oceans of 11 million to 26 million metric tons of fish and other seafood worth an estimated U.S. $10 billion to $23 billion.

IUU fishing accounts for 1 in 5 fish caught worldwide, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports.

Violators ignore national and international rules specifying how, where and how much fish may be caught. They also don’t pay fees to sustain global fisheries, undercutting legal operators’ prices.

The People’s Republic of China in 2021 ranked lowest on the IUU Fishing Index, an assessment of fishing practices and enforcement by Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management Ltd. and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. The index measures the risk of IUU fishing in and by 152 nations. (Pictured: A Chinese fishing vessel suspected of illegal large-scale drift net fishing is seized 740 kilometers east of Hokkaido, Japan.)

The leaders of the Quad member states — Australia, India, Japan and the United States — during their summit in Tokyo in late May 2022 unveiled an initiative to curb illegal fishing. The Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness will use satellite technology to track activity in countries’ territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

Curtailing forbidden catches and holding perpetrators accountable is a matter “of serious and increasing concern,” the FAO states. “IUU fishing can lead to the collapse of a fishery or seriously impair efforts to rebuild stocks that have already been depleted.”

The U.S., the world’s largest market for fish and fish products, has a strong interest in stopping IUU fishing. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cites examples of the practice:

  • Fishing in closed areas or during closed seasons
  • Fishing from vessels that are not actively managed by their flagged nation
  • Failing to meet reporting requirements
  • Transferring fish to cargo vessels without authorization

“These activities significantly undermine U.S. and global efforts to sustainably manage fisheries and conserve marine resources,” NOAA reported. “As a result, IUU fishing threatens food security and upsets the economies of coastal communities around the world.”

NOAA coordinates with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Coast Guard to tackle IUU fishing and also supports enforcement steps such as the FAO’s Agreement on Port State Measures, which took effect in June 2016. The international agreement stipulates vessels must receive permission to enter foreign ports and offload fish. It blocks IUU fishing catches from reaching markets, eliminating the economic incentive.

Similarly, nations that don’t try to stop IUU fishing may be banned from offloading commercial catches in foreign ports.

Governments that monitor and control their nation’s fishing fleet help restrict IUU fishing, as do developing nations that prioritize fisheries management, the U.S. State Department’s Office of Marine Conservation reports.

Some transnational crime syndicates use IUU fishing to support their operations. Other perpetrators are small outfits: commercial fishermen who don’t accurately report their catch or whose vessels stray into restricted waters.

The U.N. General Assembly in 2015 approved a sustainable development goal to “effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans, in order to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible, at least to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield as determined by their biological characteristics.”


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