IUU fishing torpedoes sustainable fisheries management – When licensed fishing and adherence to quotas is penalized

by Thomas Jensen

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU fishing for short) is one of the greatest threats to the sustainability of fishing, marine ecosystems, marine biodiversity, and human food security. Although international bodies and the UN regard illegal fishing as an environmental crime and the European Union has adopted a regulation to combat IUU fishing the problem has not been fully resolved because there are still gaps and loopholes.

Illegal, undocumented and unregulated fishing, also known as pirate fishing, has many facets. In deep-sea fishing, it is understood to mean all types of commercial fishing carried out without the necessary licence, in which the fishing quota authorised under the fishing licence is exceeded, or in which the quantities caught are not, not completely or incorrectly documented. However, it is also considered to be IUU fishing if a fishing vessel fishes in territorial waters of other nations without permission, or if it violates the fishing laws of that country, for example by ignoring fishing times and protected areas. The territorial waters of some West African countries, for example, are among the preferred fishing areas for pirate fishing. In none of these countries is there a strong fisheries control authority, so that the pirate vessels are not in much danger of being caught.

IUU fishing decimates fish stocks, destroys marine habitats, distorts competition, discriminates against honest fishermen, and weakens many coastal communities. The term IUU fishing also refers to fishing activities in marine areas for which there is no management at all to regulate catches, and to the fishing of migratory fish species in international waters, where sustainable catch quantities are difficult to determine by the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) and hardly possible to monitor. This increases the risk of over-exploitation of fully utilised stocks.

In order to be able to calculate as exactly as possible the actual amount of catches taken worldwide, IUU catches would have to be added to the total registered catches. This is the only way to determine the legal catch quota for certain marine areas accurately. If the IUU share is missing in the calculations the size of the stock is overestimated and the catch quotas for the coming year will be set too high. This increases fishing pressure on stocks, overburdens their reproductive potential, and can lead to overexploitation of certain fish species. The IUU problem mainly affects marine fisheries, and is much less pronounced in inland fisheries.

IUU fishing is often the result of unresolved social problems


In many regions of the world small-scale fishermen earn a meagre livelihood through fishing – without a licence, without allocated quotas, and without any kind of controls.

What makes IUU fishing so tempting for pirate fishermen is not only the prospect of unlicensed catches outside the authorised quotas but also that they do not have to pay charges or taxes on profits. It is mainly practised on a large scale in those countries that are known for weak state controls, rampant corruption, unclear or contradictory legislation, and a low degree of willingness to enforce existing laws resolutely. Financially weak states have other priorities than the committed fight against IUU fishing. A study by the West African Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC), which consists of seven states, points to reasons why some states score so badly in the fight against illegal fishing and shows that the control authorities lack qualified and motivated specialists who are poorly paid, which often makes them susceptible to bribes. Due to a lack of money, the member states invest too little in the infrastructure of fisheries control, fishing control vessels and surveillance aircraft, as well as in their operation, maintenance and servicing.

It is difficult to estimate the full extent of pirate fishing. A lot of experts believe that, although the worst period dating back to the mid-1990s has now been overcome, the size of suspected illegal catches is still far too large. Two opposing trends make realistic estimates even more difficult. On the one hand, IUU fishing is declining noticeably in many marine areas, with more effective state controls contributing to this development. On the other hand, this makes illegal fishing even more attractive, because the species in demand on the markets are then scarcer and achieve even better prices. Figures quoted for the extent of illegal fishing should be treated with caution. While representatives of the fishing industry prefer to talk down the issue of IUU fishing, environmental NGOs tend to set the share as high as possible, probably in order to underline the urgent need for vigorous countermeasures. Impartial experts also find it very difficult to realistically estimate illegal catches – for obvious reasons: as the name suggests, pirate or illegal fishing is a business for which there are no official data or statistics. Experts’ estimates vary between 11 and 26 million tonnes per year, which would be equivalent to a landing value of at least EUR 10 billion per year.

IUU fishing is a global problem

Probably no fishing grounds are entirely free of pirate fishing but the bulk of illegal catches comes from waters where controls are rather the exception than the rule. Conservationists and environmentalists claim that in West African countries one in every three fish is of illegal origin. In the Pacific, IUU fishing is thought to account for 21 to 46% of all fishing activities. The expanses of the Antarctic Ocean and the Arafura Sea between Australia and Indonesia hold an almost magical attraction for pirate fishermen. However, examples of illegal fishing can also be found in Europe, where willingness to comply with binding laws and agreements is not equally pronounced everywhere. For years, for example, Polish fishermen did not keep to the cod quotas agreed at EU level for the eastern Baltic Sea and caught more than allowed. This practice only ended with the change of government in 2007. Greenpeace estimates that about 1,200 industrial fishing vessels are involved in IUU fishing. Many of them fly flags of convenience, but it is not rare that the ship-owners are based in Europe, Japan, Korea, China or the USA. By “flagging out”, i.e. switching to a foreign register of ships, operators can reduce costs and thus increase profits through making use of the fact that labour law provisions in Belize, Liberia or Panama are less restrictive and the pay and social security contributions for the ships’ crews much lower.

Some species of fish and other marine animals are particularly hard hit by IUU fishing. These include demersal species that live on or near the ground and have a high market value. For example Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) or black cod (Anoplopoma fimbria). Some tuna species, cod, lobster and crayfishes are also high on the list of likes among pirate fishermen. In th
is criminal business any species is interesting where high demand meets low supply. Some of them are already over-fished, for others the legal catch volume is limited by small quotas. Pirate fishermen can make lucrative profits with these fishes – provided they don’t get caught and know how to channel the goods into the legal market.

Pirate fishermen use every small loophole


Wherever freshly caught fish is sold directly after landing on the beach or in small markets effective controls are virtually impossible.


On the high seas pirate fishermen often have little to fear because controls are few or lax. In order to reduce their risk when landing the catch they seek out small ports where they are not bothered by people wanting to take a closer look at their catch or where inspectors are willing to accept small “presents”. Often the IUU vessels don’t even have to call at ports to unload their illegal cargo because they hand over the catch at sea to refrigerated or transport vessels. During these transhipments, the IUU vessels are also supplied with food and fuel, enabling them to stay in the fishing grounds for longer periods. Individual fishing vessels are said to operate off West Africa all the year round using this method, which puts even more pressure on fish stocks. Once on board the refrigerated vessels, illegally caught fishes are mixed with legal catches to conceal their origin. These cargoes are then preferentially unloaded in ports with negligent controls, so that the pirates will ultimately succeed in effectively “laundering” their ill-gotten fish which they can then put on the market with falsified documents.

The fight against IUU fishing requires enormous investments and close international cooperation. We need to improve fisheries control and tighten up the network of controls both at sea and on land. Satellite-based surveillance systems can be used to track the course and position of fishing vessels even far away from the coasts. Controls and sanctions must be coordinated internationally and implemented consistently. About 170 countries agreed to the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries adopted by the FAO in 1995. Although the Code is voluntary and not legally binding, IUU fishing has diminished wherever these rules have actually been transposed into national law, for example in Norway, Australia, Malaysia, Namibia and South Africa.

Combating IUU fishing concerns everyone

If the measures to prevent IUU fishing are to be successful, countries without their own fishing fleets must also participate, since illegally fished products can be exported worldwide and appear on many markets. That is why ensuring the complete traceability of fishery products from catch to final customer is so important because it makes it easier for retailers and consumers to buy impeccable goods. Products from sustainable and environmentally friendly fisheries can be recognised at the retailer’s by the blue MSC label which is only awarded if the fishery concerned meets certain minimum standards that are also understandable to customers. Some environmental organisations are of the opinion that the MSC standards don’t go far enough but, in spite of all justified criticism, environmental labels such as MSC or FoS have for the first time created opportunities for consumers to support efforts towards “clean” fishing by making conscious purchasing decisions.

The European Union is the world’s largest market for fishery products, importing about 60% of its seafood needs from third countries. This has made the Community an attractive target market for products from illegal fishing. With Council Regulation (EC) No. 1005/2008 of 29 September 2008 the EU member states put in place a system to inhibit, combat and prevent illegal fishing and at the same time position the EU at the forefront of efforts to reduce IUU fishing and illegal profiteering. Since the entry into force of the IUU Regulation it has been specified exactly which vessels are allowed to land fish in the EU, which documents they must submit for this purpose (whereby the main objective is to prove the legal origin of the goods by means of a complete traceability system), and how the incoming goods must be inspected. With the aim of preventing IUU fishing throughout Europe and closing any still apparent loopholes, deterrent sanctions are threatened in the event of infringements. All companies from EU member states, irrespective of the flag under which they operate illegal fishing anywhere in the world, face severe penalties based on the commercial value of the illegal catch. This aims at eliminating profits from the pirate fishermen’s dirty dealings.

Controls need to be coordinated across Europe

Almost at the same time as the IUU Regulation, Regulation (EC) No. 1224/2009 modernised and harmonised the fisheries control system throughout Europe. Extensive controls are now mandatory when unloading catches in an EU port. Ships must report their cargo even before they arrive at the port. After docking, they have to present the fishing licence, the vessel’s operating licence issued by the flag State, and the fishing permit which gives information on which fish may be caught when, where and in what quantity. This information is compared with the actual catches in the hold and with the data in the electronic logbook to determine whether the fish caught is covered by appropriate permits and is therefore legal. These checks are made easier by the development of a modern data collection and management system for all fishery-related data. The system also facilitates the exchange of data collected between the member states, the EU Commission and the European Fisheries Control Agency. In order to identify irregularities more quickly, the Commission’s powers are to be strengthened and the mandate of the Community Fisheries Control Agency adapted accordingly. The Fisheries Control Regulation is supplemented by a comprehensive implementing regulation (No 404/2011) which sets out the technical details.

A system of penalties for gross infringements of current fisheries legislation was introduced. In addition, a list of IUU vessels caught by Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) in the process of pirate fishing or attempting to unload illegally caught fish in an RFMO port is also published at regular intervals. This listing according to the “name and shame” principle is intended to make it even more difficult for IUU fishermen to pursue their criminal activities. Ships on this blacklist are not authorised to fish, tranship or land their catches in the EU, and neither is it permitted to import the fishery products. Except for in emergencies, ships are not given any supplies, fuel or services in ports of Community countries. Customs and port authorities are obliged to prevent the entry of blacklisted ships. Fish retailers and fish processing companies are requested not to accept catches and fishery products from listed vessels.

Warning system with yellow and red cards proving effective

The EU’s IUU regulation also enables measures to be taken against third countries (countries outside the EU) in which illegal fishing activities are not being pursued or not sufficiently pursued. Those who fail to comply with the strict standards of fisheries management demanded by the EU will first be warned with a “yellow card” and asked to improve within certain deadlines. Failure or insufficient effort to do so may result in a “red card” which automatically leads to an import ban on fishery products from that country i
nto the EU market. The card procedure is one of the greatest achievements of the EU’s IUU regulation. It has proved its worth in practice for the majority of the countries warned immediately embarked on rigorous reforms so that the yellow cards could be withdrawn. All sides benefit equally: the incentive to continue supplying the lucrative EU market is great. Consumers in EU member states can increasingly be sure that only legally caught fish will be offered for sale, and there are also major improvements in the fisheries management in the countries of origin. It is probably only the pirate fishermen who are not happy because they are now being watched even more closely.

EU regulations 1005/2008 and 1224/2009 have become effective instruments in the fight against IUU fishing. They play a significant role in keeping illegal fish out of the EU market and make a very important contribution to the process of global change in the direction of more sustainable fisheries. However, any regulation is only as good as the degree to which it is actually enforced. Recent analyses show that the regulations have not yet been fully and uniformly implemented throughout Europe and have revealed that there are still isolated loopholes which undermine the concept of strict import controls and thus the effectiveness of the IUU regulation. Often only part of the imports are actually checked because of a lack of inspection and control capacities, or inspectors only take a brief, superficial look so that sometimes fake documents are not recognized at all. The installed system is good and internationally trend-setting. But member states must invest more to create additional resources and enforce more rigorous inspection procedures. This is the only way to prevent imports of products from IUU fishing and thus successfully combat illegal fishing.


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