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Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated

Illegal fishing

Peter Horn MBE, of the Pew Trusts’ Ending Illegal Fishing project, explains how the net is closing in on fisheries crime worldwide

Operating under the radar, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing represents a global threat to the long-term health of our oceans, worsens the impact of overfishing on critical marine ecosystems, and jeopardises the livelihoods of tens of millions who depend on ocean resources.1

The oceans play a vital role in the social and economic development of many countries. But with as much as 26 million tonnes of seafood taken illegally from our seas each year – that’s one in every five fish sold – IUU fishing is more than just a danger to the environment. It is a widespread, often highly organised, security threat that can limit the ability of nations to feed, employ and safeguard their citizens. Up to $23.5 billion a year is potentially lost in the global market due to IUU fishing, robbing law-abiding fishers of their economic security and livelihoods.

Laws preventing IUU fishing and related crimes have little or no effect without robust governance, including proper implementation and enforcement. In other words, efforts to end illegal fishing should be designed and executed in a way that is integrated, comprehensive, and aligned with the views of all key players.

But while robust governance is necessary for a successful battle against IUU fishing, it is only one part of the solution. Success will also require the creation and implementation of international agreements and policies, cooperation among enforcement authorities, advanced technological solutions, engagement with the seafood industry, and, above all, strong leadership by policymakers and law enforcement officials, including a willingness to share information and resources to drive change.

International policies create transparency

After surpassing the critical threshold of 25 ratifications, the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) – the first international treaty designed to curb illegal fishing – entered into force in June 2016, seven years after being adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.2 The pact aims to keep IUU fish out of the global market by allowing Parties to the agreement to require foreign-flagged fishing vessels to present information on licensing, ownership and catch when they arrive in port. Officials can then order inspections of vessels and ban entry of any that are suspected of IUU activity, or those with tainted legal histories. Port officials are obligated to share what they learn with neighbouring countries to prevent illegal fishers ‘port shopping’. The treaty also allows port authorities to deny fuel and other services to vessels that may be linked to illegal fishing or unlawful transhipment of catch.

As a result of the PSMA, seafood retailers, in hopes of weeding out illegally caught seafood, have the opportunity to demand better assessments of where and by whom the fish they’re selling is caught. By eliminating the possibility of financial gain, the PSMA removes the incentive for poachers to steal – and responsible fishers can proceed without having to compete with illicit activity.

The Pew Trusts has continued to advocate for the widespread ratification of the PSMA even after the Agreement went into force; the treaty is strengthened as more countries sign on. The Trusts continues to work with partners such as FISH-i:Africa, the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, and the Central America Fisheries and Aquaculture Organization to encourage key countries to join this important agreement.3

But the focus now is on implementation. By assessing the capacity of countries to respond to IUU fishing, Pew is helping these countries, especially those lacking in resources, to identify gaps in port controls and determine additional steps to take.

Fighting the crime wave

Policy without enforcement is like a fisherman without a net.

With that in mind, and in response to an increase in crimes at sea, Interpol, an intergovernmental organisation that facilitates international police cooperation, launched Project Scale in 2013, with the support of Pew and the government of Norway.4 This initiative, spanning 190 member countries, employs a suite of tools – including an international alert system for seeking information on suspects and their activities – in an effort to combat fisheries crimes. The Project Scale team, made up of intelligence officers and multidisciplinary experts, is well positioned to coordinate a global response to IUU-related crimes and streamline investigations across borders, while building the capacity of government authorities to acquire up-to-date and actionable information and enforce fisheries laws.

Since Project Scale’s launch, Interpol has issued more than 30 notices associated with illegal fishing, which have helped authorities determine the whereabouts and activities of suspected criminals, while chasing others off the water and strengthening collaboration on complex multinational investigations. The most well-known investigation by Project Scale targeted the Thunder, a vessel that had been fishing under various names and flags of registration throughout the Southern Ocean for more than a decade.5 In April 2015, as it was being monitored by an environmental group, the Thunder sank off the coast of São Tomé and Principe. Officials in that country claimed it was an apparent effort to hide evidence of illegal fishing. The captain and two crewmen were later convicted in São Tomé and Principe on a number of charges related to the sinking and using fraudulent documents, for which they received sentences ranging from two years and nine months to three years, as well as being fined a total of nearly €15 million, according to court papers. The owners of the Thunder were not named in the case.

Another successful facilitation and information exchange headed by Project Scale came in September 2016 when the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Environment investigated seven companies, who were part of a business network that was linked to several vessels suspected of illegal fishing, including the Kunlun. According to government documents, the administrative proceedings resulted in fines totalling €17.8 million and commercial fishing bans of up to 23 years for the accused.

The ocean is vast, and the enforcement of fisheries laws can prove very challenging for authorities. Closing the door on IUU fishing cannot be done by one individual, country or organisation. Recognising the interconnectedness of criminality at sea, Project Scale is in a unique and well-informed position to identify suspicious behaviour, connect the dots of illicit activity, and enable authorities to act on leads and successfully convict offenders.

Tracking vessels from space

To track and find suspected illegal fishers, national authorities have long relied on conventional, resource-intensive enforcement methods, which can be inefficient, costly, and largely ineffective without adequate manpower. But technology offers a solution.6

In January 2015, Pew teamed up with the Satellite Applications Catapult to introduce a state-of-the-art remote monitoring technology created under Project Eyes on the Seas. The platform utilises an application called Oversea Ocean Monitor to integrate satellite tracking data and imagery data with details about a vessel’s history, licences, ownership, risk index and more.7 When all the information is cross-referenced, the ability to detect potential illegal fishing operations goes far beyond what is possible with conventional monitoring systems. And with analyses being conducted in near-real time, analysts can accomplish in seconds what would normally take days.

Each user, such as a government agency or fisheries management body, can tailor the system to respond to its needs and databases. Oversea Ocean Monitor uses algorithms to identify patterns of fishing and generate alerts when suspicious activity – such as a vessel fishing inside a marine reserve or a known illegal operator demonstrating signs of fishing in a banned area – is detected. Analysts can quickly share reliable information on suspected offenders with port officials and enforcement authorities, who in turn can stop the crime or confront the suspects when they come into port.

Because illegal fishers often steal from the waters of resource-poor nations, the monitoring technology developed under Project Eyes on the Seas was designed as a cost-effective tool for any country seeking to end illegal fishing in its waters. Now being managed by OceanMind, a not-for-profit division of the Catapult, Oversea Ocean Monitor is helping governments and authorities around the world to protect their waters.8

Closing the net on supply chains

The increasing global demand for seafood poses many challenges for fisheries management. Seafood, from both wild and farmed sources, is the most valuable food commodity in the world, accounting for nearly $150 billion a year in global trade.9 By eliminating the potential for financial gain, the motivation to fish illegally can be drastically reduced.

Pew’s efforts to combat IUU fishing now include working with wholesale and retail seafood markets to stop illegally caught seafood from entering the supply chain, by using tracking tools, risk assessments, and performance indicators to help businesses know with certainty where, and by whom, the fish they sell was caught.10 By engaging with retailers, processors and the food service sector, Pew hopes to build momentum among businesses for keeping IUU products off the shelf.

Illegal fishers cannot sell illicit products that the market refuses to buy. That is why Pew and other stakeholders are encouraging seafood buyers to support and implement policies that address IUU fishing. This will drive positive change for the future health of our ocean and law-abiding fishers – and for consumers.

Leadership to navigate choppy waters

Tangible successes have been achieved through the integrated use of global instruments such as enforceable ocean policies, cooperation among countries, technological advancements, and engagement with the seafood industry. But combating IUU fishing is an arms race. While new solutions are being deployed, unscrupulous operators are looking for novel ways to plunder from the world’s oceans. It is vital for everyone to take responsibility – governments, fisheries, international authorities and consumers all have an important role to play in curbing this destructive practice.11 Over the past few years, front-runners such as Chile and the United Kingdom have emerged, emphasising the significance of marine protected areas, as well as the critical tools and technology that are necessary to monitor them. The United States has also taken critical steps to engage the seafood industry and identify market levers that will help bring about effective change along the supply chain. What’s most important is strong leadership across all these areas of work, accompanied by a willingness to share information and resources – that is what will win the battle against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

1. Pew Trusts Ending Illegal Fishing project.
2. Port State Measures Agreement.
3. FISH-i:Africa, Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, Central America Fisheries and Aquaculture Organization,
4. Project Scale.
5. Tony Long, How Interpol’s Project Scale Is helping to curb illegal fishing. Pew Trusts, 7 March 2016.
6. Pew Trusts. Issue brief: Project Eyes on the Seas.
7. Project Eyes on the Seas: pioneering technology to help end illegal fishing .
8. OceanMind.
9. FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2016.
10. Tony Long and Huw Thomas, Seafood supply chain is key in efforts to end illegal fishing. Compass Points (Pew Trusts), 6 April 2017.
11. Tony Long, Follow the leaders to stop illegal fishing. Pew Trusts, 7 March 2016.