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Global food security and illegal fishing

IUU fishing – the FAO approach

Matthew Camilleri, Lori Curtis and Alicia Mosteiro describe how international regulations are being developed to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing

As of mid-2017, the global population numbered nearly 7.5 billion, and it is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Combined with the increasing challenges of hunger and malnutrition, this means that food security is a major concern. Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Fish and fish products play a crucial role in nutrition and global food security, serving as a valuable source of nutrients and micronutrients of fundamental importance for diversified and healthy diets. This is particularly the case for many communities in lower-income countries, where the importance of fish is enhanced by the fact that fish contains many of the vitamins and minerals required to address some of the most severe and widespread nutritional deficiencies. Fish provides more than 20% of the average per capita animal protein intake for 3 billion people, more than 50% in some less developed countries, and it is one of the world’s most traded food commodities.

The growing need for nutritious and healthy food will increase the demand for fisheries products from marine sources that are already stressed by excessive fishing pressure, marine pollution, coastal degradation and climate change. Fisheries governance, and the national and international policy and legal frameworks within which it is framed, must ensure that this important source of healthy food is available for generations to come.

The challenge of IUU fishing

Fisheries enforcement officers heading out to a vessel inspection under the Port States Measures Agreement at Kokopo, East New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Matthew Camilleri / FAO

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is recognised as a major threat not only to the sustainability of fisheries resources but also to marine ecosystems in general, undermining the sustainable management of fisheries and marine resources. IUU fishing accounts for up to one-fifth of the global capture fisheries production.

According to the most recent publication of The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA),1 in 2016, 40.3 million people were employed in the primary sector of capture fisheries, with even more engaged in related secondary sectors. For many coastal communities, fish may be the only major source of animal protein. Maintaining a sustainable fishery is important for the food security of those communities, which both consume fish and gain an income from fisheries in order to purchase other food items. The fisheries sector is already facing several challenges, including fully or overfished fish stocks, climate change and environmental damage, and it is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. Additional changes, such as the effects of IUU fishing, may therefore have serious consequences in poor fishing communities that are already under stress.

IUU fishing takes advantage of corrupt administrations and exploits weak management regimes, in particular those of developing countries lacking the capacity and resources for effective monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS). IUU fishing is found in all types and dimensions of fisheries; it occurs both on the high seas and in areas within national jurisdiction, it concerns all aspects and stages of the capture and utilisation of fish, and it may sometimes be associated with organised crime.

Fisheries resources available to legitimate fishers are removed by IUU fishing, which can lead to the collapse of local fisheries, with small-scale fisheries in developing countries proving particularly vulnerable. Products derived from IUU fishing can find their way into overseas trade markets, thus throttling local food supply. IUU fishing therefore threatens livelihoods, exacerbates poverty, and augments food insecurity.

The very nature of IUU fishing, that it is clandestine and operates outside of existing fisheries regulations, combined with its complexity, makes it difficult to estimate or fully understand its magnitude.

How do we tackle IUU fishing?

The principles of responsible fisheries management have been prescribed in a number of international ocean and fisheries instruments, and have been supported and strengthened by regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) around the globe. However, states do not always satisfactorily fulfil their duties in line with such instruments and regional mechanisms, which allows space for the occurrence of IUU fishing.

The development and adoption of international guidelines to improve flag states’ compliance with their duties and to promote better traceability of fishery products in the value chain through the use of catch documentation schemes, together with the development of fishing-vessel records at regional and global levels, are important achievements in the fight against IUU fishing. And, considering that fishing vessels are highly dependent on the use of ports, including ports of states other than their own, support for the implementation of port state measures in combating IUU fishing has increased remarkably over the years, leading to the adoption of the landmark Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA).2

The PSMA, which entered into force in June 2016, sets conditions for the entry and use of ports by foreign fishing vessels and defines minimum international standards to be applied in reviewing information prior to a vessel’s entry into port, conducting inspections in port and taking measures against vessels found to have engaged in IUU fishing. As of August 2018, there were 55 parties to the PSMA, including the European Union as one party. The agreement provides an opportunity for states to collaborate and exchange information on fishing vessels and their activities, including through and with RFMOs, thereby creating a network which supports port states in combatting IUU fishing, flag states in the control of their vessels, coastal states in protecting their fishery resources, and market states in ensuring that fishery products derived from IUU fishing do not enter their markets.

Notable progress

In addition to the PSMA, substantial progress has been made on the adoption, launch and implementation of instruments and tools to combat IUU fishing. The Global Record of Fishing Vessels, Refrigerated Transport Vessels and Supply Vessels (Global Record) concept has been widely supported, and the information tool is expected to play a crucial role in closing the information gap on vessels carrying out fishing and fishing-related activities. In addition to the ‘identification’ information such as registration, characteristics and ownership, the tool also integrates other pieces of information relevant to the fight against IUU fishing such as previous vessel names, owners and operators as well as authorisations to fish, transship or supply, and history of compliance. FAO launched the public version of the Global Record information system in July 2018, including one-third of the global eligible fleet.

Additionally, the Voluntary Guidelines for Catch Documentation Schemes were adopted in July 2017, and will provide assistance in the development and implementation of any catch documentation schemes.3 Additionally, efforts to better understand and monitor at-sea transshipments as well as guidelines to facilitate estimating the magnitude of IUU fishing are also under way. These initiatives strengthen international cooperation, as well as increasing knowledge on specific aspects of IUU fishing, directly supporting the ability of states and organisations to effectively combat IUU fishing.

These complementary tools, alongside such important instruments as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the UN Fish Stocks Agreement,4 the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate IUU Fishing,5 the Compliance Agreement6 and the FAO Voluntary Guidelines for Flag State Performance,7 serve to ensure a comprehensive governance framework for fisheries management and the fight against IUU fishing.

Assisting developing countries

Becoming party to various international instruments is only the first step. The real challenge arises when working towards their implementation. While all countries face some challenges in implementing these instruments, the obstacles that developing countries face are often much more extreme, and the need for special assistance is recognised in most of these international instruments. In 2017, FAO launched its Global Capacity Development Umbrella Programme in support of the PSMA and complementary instruments, and will be providing assistance to over 33 countries in its first five years of implementation.

The global community has been making real efforts to raise awareness about the prevalence and deleterious effects of IUU fishing; the result is that it has become a priority at national, regional and the global levels. While the elimination of IUU fishing alone will not resolve the issues of either overfishing or food insecurity, it will certainly mark important progress in the right direction.


  6. FAO (1995). Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas.

Dr Matthew Camilleri is head of the FAO Fishing Operations and Technology Branch. Lori Curtis and Alicia Mosteiro are FAO Fisheries Officers.