• The Pendulum

Fewer Fish to Fry

Ashley Rhom


International organizations are beginning a reckoning process within the illegal fishing industry. Unprecedented accounts of widespread illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing have consumed the efforts of global environmental enforcement, but even as combatant efforts rise, the practice continues to thrive. IUU is not a new phenomenon; however, the misconduct is now presented in a global fashion, inviting more thorough oversight into the once hidden practice.


IUU, or illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, became of particular concern in the early 2000s due to technological advances in regulation abilities, including: marine research, global mapping, and data expansion, to name a few. The practice is continued throughout the oceans of the world; fishing companies use illegal and ill-advised means to exploit fish stocks. This exploitation of fish reserves goes beyond usual catch amounts, and it restricts fair and regulated fishing for companies abiding by the rules. IUU fishing does considerable detriment to the international fish population, and it perpetuates an environment of illegality on the high seas. There are numerous instances of IUU, encompassing things like fishing within unauthorized jurisdictions, misreported or unreported fishing statistics, and undocumented fishing vessels in international waters.


The IUU fishing phenomenon is nothing new--however, the scope of international involvement has increased as more countries become involved. While this is the case, the most frequent offenders include Asian countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, South China Sea, and the Sea of Japan (IUU Fishing, 2019). China and Taiwan lead the category as the worst performing countries, relative to IUU fishing practices. China, with a score of 3.93 out of 4.00, leads the corruption, according to a 2019 individual country report established by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime. Following closely, Taiwan retains second place in IUU fishing violations with a score of 3.34 out of 4.00, according to the same report. These scores, validated by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime, take into account factors like: country responsivity to IUU fishing, a country’s vulnerability to the acts, and the prevalence of the events within a country’s bordering waters. The scores are then aggregated into a quantifiable calculation and given to countries around the world.

These illegal fishing operations pursue international waters for all sorts of fish, but anchovy and mackerel fishing vessels are most frequently found in violation of international fishing laws. As of 2015, there were four high risk fishing stocks, which include the European anchovy, silky shark, common octopus, and the chub mackerel. European anchovies, for example, constituted 21 percent of the species group within the Eastern Central Atlantic, but were illegally fished at a rate of 37 percent within the same region. Another example of the effects of IUU fishing is shown with the Western Indian Ocean chub mackerel population. According to the same chart, the species comprises 17 percent of the species group, yet it was fished at a rate of 18 percent, concurrent with the then world average of 18 percent. Overfishing is a large share of IUU, and misrepresentation of catch amounts fosters the problem into today.


Photo by Jean Wimmerlin on Unsplash

IUU fishing, though far reaching and elusive, is tracked by dozens of state and non-state actors. These actors range in scope; some are intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), some are non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and some are international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). The United Nations (UN) maintains a heavy hand in IUU fishing deterrence through its branch, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The UN relies on regional cooperation when combating IUU fishing; these regional mechanisms can include conservation measures and regional agreements in concert with relevant NGOs and other willing partners.


The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) also provides governance in the realm of IUU fishing. An example of UNESCO’s involvement in the fight against IUU fishing came in a dispute between China in the Gulf of California. In 2017, China sent vessels to fish for the totoaba fish, a species coveted on the black market for its swim bladder. However, the vaquita porpoise, another species of fish, was discovered as a byproduct of the totoaba’s capture. This ‘incidental’ event continued as fishing for the totoaba fish continued, leading to a plummet in the vaquita porpoise’s population within the Gulf. UNESCO took charge of the situation, establishing a permanent ban on the use of gillnets in the region, which were the nets used by the Chinese vessels to exploit the two fish populations. UNESCO worked alongside local organizations to ensure the vessels were not in violation of the new gillnet ban, and the organization continues to maintain surveillance in the area, looking for potential violations.


In addition, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an INGO, opposes IUU fishing with its implementation of international shipping regulations and laws. Shipment of illegally obtained fish is an inherent issue with IUU, and the establishment of enforceable, transnational law is necessary to prevent further violations. In a 2015 address given to a Joint Working Group (JWC) on IUU fishing, Secretary General of the IMO, Koji Sekimizu, stated, “My invitation to the JWG is, therefore, to champion the establishment of a robust legal framework for the safety of fishing vessels and personnel employed on board fishing vessels, thereby contributing to the fight against IUU fishing.” The IMO champions itself on global collaboration for the promotion of reputable and legal fishing, which is noted in the address given by Koji Sekimizu. The implementation of international legal parameters helps to curb the number of IUU fishing incidents, and it gives international states the ability to put actions with their words.


The goal of anti-IUU fishing organizations is to eradicate the issue entirely. These organizations, comprised of the aforementioned associations of NGOs, IGOs, and INGOs, work collectively to protect marine populations across the world. The organizations also work collaboratively alongside sovereign states to defend regional interests, both environmentally and economically. International institutions use their presence to improve communications around the anti-IUU fishing arena and to work with regional powers to withstand illegal pressures. Additionally, anti-IUU fishing organizations use their efforts to sustain and aid affected environments. The results of illegal fishing are detrimental to marine ecosystems, as fish populations are caught at rates that cannot be replenished. According to a 2016 memorandum by the National Intelligence Council in coordination with the US Intelligence Agency, approximately 85 percent of the total fish population is either overfished or fully fished. The biological sustainability of these populations is steadily decreasing, and the fully fished population has no real possibility of becoming sustainable again.


IUU fishing is problematic because it affects international environmental and economic factors. Overfishing contributes to the decline of marine populations, and the decline of those populations creates an economic strain on local fisheries. Fishing vessels now have to travel outside of their national waters to catch sufficient amounts of fish, which leads to a host of legal issues concerning rights to international waters. IUU fishing also allows vessels to misrepresent statistics, increasing the instability of fishing populations and marring potential sustainability efforts by outside organizations. Countries and international organizations from all sides are concerned about IUU fishing, as it is detrimental to a global economic sector. Because the occurrences of IUU fishing are being evaluated and managed, more international oversight is able to illuminate the previously hidden doings of the illegal fisheries society. The addition of international organizations, in concordance with states, limits the future impacts of IUU fishing, limiting the practice in waters across the world.

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