Illegal fishing, or Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, is estimated to account for approximately 20% of world catches, i.e. between 11 and 26 million tons. This represents a global loss of between EUR 10bn and EUR 23bn a year. In addition to this economic observation, these illegal practices permanently undermine the existing management and conservation measures, food security and the living conditions of communities. Combating illegal fishing consequently means promoting environmental, social and economic development.

© John C. Bruckman 2014
© John C. Bruckman 2014

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Important factor of imbalance

While illegal fishing poses a real environmental threat by depleting global fish stocks and threatening marine ecosystems, it also creates serious economic and social imbalances by undermining the protection and recovery measures that are implemented.

Illegal operators’ operating costs are lower than for fishermen who comply with the laws. Firstly, they generate a strong distortion of competition, which results in a decline in catches, incomes and employment in groups that practice legal fishing. Secondly, by overexploiting and depleting resources, they threaten the very existence of the sector.

These consequences are particularly serious in parts of the world where fishing is the main source of income and a source of animal protein. Today, fishing provides employment to 60 million people worldwide, including 84% in Asia and over 10% in Africa.[1] In certain developing countries, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Ghana, fish can account for over 50% of animal protein consumption (an average of 25% in the poorest countries; 90% in coastal areas and small island States). Consequently, actors who practice illegal fishing directly threaten these jobs, with a loss of income for fishermen and their families who make a living from it and of food security for populations who depend on it for their livelihoods. Another social consequence of these practices is also that in these regions, these actors use cheap labor and workers are exploited in conditions that sometimes border on slavery.



Profitable practices

Illegal fishing is practiced by all types of ships, regardless of their registration, their origin, their size or their state. They are particularly present on the high seas, out of sight. It is, unfortunately, profitable and is even fostered by several factors:

  • Firstly, fishing overcapacity. There is, indeed, a real imbalance between fishing capacity and available resources in the world. Quotas are falling, but not the capacity of ships.
  • Secondly, the lack of regulation in certain sea areas. Beyond the 200 nautical miles of Coastal States, the ocean becomes a common heritage whose management does not depend on any specific responsibility.
  • Little surveillance, limited sanctions, corruption of administrations, weak governance of certain States… with, in addition, the inadequate or ineffective enforcement of national and international regulations in areas where there is no law.
  • Certain tax mechanisms (tax havens, joint ventures, flags of convenience, foreign investments) also create a breeding ground for illegal operators.
  • Weak local governance, with low salaries that attract illegal operators; the lack or limited implementation of standards for the management of fishing capacity.
  • Finally, fisheries subsidies allocated, for example, by the European Union, which favor overcapacity, as well as the strong market demand for certain species with high added value (toothfish, Bluefin tuna), substantially contribute to perpetuating illegal fishing practices.



Existing regulations need to be effectively enforced

Declarations and commitments, European regulation, FAO international agreements… a number of measures have the merit of existing, but are only partially implemented.

In 2013, the UN called for a new global partnership to eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development in order to “Adopt sustainable agricultural, ocean and freshwater fishery practices and rebuild designated fish stocks to sustainable levels”.[2] The joint statement on IUU fishing, signed by the European Commission and US Government in 2011, also emphasized the global impact of the devastating environmental and socioeconomic consequences of illegal fishing.

But this increased awareness of the challenges and risks related to IUU fishing has not been global. China, in particular, continues to be the most notable absentee in negotiations. The complicity of the Chinese authorities is, moreover, recognized, whether in terms of catches under-declared by the administrations, a fleet spread out across all the oceans without any real control, the regular use of flags of convenience, the lack of sanctions, and human rights abuses. It should be recalled that China is the world’s largest exporter and producer in the sector and is one of Europe’s main sources of supply.

The European Union’s economic, import control and cooperation tools are, for their part, – and thankfully so! – relatively effective. The strong economic sanctions press exporting third countries to become compliant with the fight against illegal fishing. However, there are shortcomings in this system over the control of flags of convenience and distant fleets, the lack of transparency in the evaluation processes for third countries and, especially, on the issue of equity between the evaluated countries (diplomatic issues differ from one country to another). We can also add the difficulties of certain States to meet the level of requirements and the possibilities of fraud with the catch certificate.

Finally, the various FAO international agreements depend on the goodwill of the Parties to these agreements. The level and quality of the information supplied vary enormously from one country to another, and it is difficult to set up such information systems as they require a real financial and human investment by all actors.



What solutions for a more effective management of resources?

Today, 61.3% of the world’s fish stocks are exploited at their maximum replacement level and 28.8% of stocks are overexploited. WWF thus emphasizes the state of emergency and has set the objective of an end to illegal fishing by 2025. To achieve this, several lines for action are needed.

This firstly involves ensuring the implementation of international agreements and measures and generally improving them, in particular via the definition of a real regulatory status for fishing located outside national jurisdictions. Furthermore, the International Tribunal has recently moved in this direction by confirming that States could now be prosecuted for illegal fishing in foreign waters.

It is also necessary to reinforce measures for the management and surveillance of fishery activities within the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), with an active involvement of States Parties and taking scientific opinions into consideration, particularly the RFMOs who operate in areas sensitive to IUU fishing, such as the IOTC (Indian Ocean Tuna Commission). Finally, it goes without saying that it is essential to take better account of the role of Asian countries, particularly China, within the various policies implemented at international level.

The globalization of the market for seafood products requires importing companies to have greater vigilance over their supply system and a responsibility in terms of the products they offer on the market. However, it is important to improve the traceability of supply chains via the systematic collection of information on the catch at the time of purchase, the implementation of monitoring indicators on origins and policies to identify products that may originate from IUU fishing.

Finally, raising the awareness of consumers in Northern countries is a major driver for change, as their choices have an influence on production and supply methods. Giving preference to products for which we have the highest level of information, to local and fair markets and certified products has an impact on the market. It is, indeed, important to know that a European currently consumes more imported seafood products (70%) than products fished in European waters. The main countries of import for Europe are developing or emerging countries, the first being China.

These various recommendations for Northern countries must also go hand in hand with support from the international community to developing countries for actions such as the definition of public polices in the fisheries sector, the reinforcement of resource management, control and surveillance systems (MCS system) and support for small-scale sectors that provide resources to millions of people.

Wiping out illegal fishing requires actions throughout the industry in the South and North alike.


[1] FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2014.
[2] UN, Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.


The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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