Illegal fishing thrives amid disjointed global response

Overfishing is a potential environmental disaster on a global scale, and China’s role in it is expanding
<p>Stocks of edible fish have plummeted while in areas such as west Africa the number of vessels involved in illegal activities is a major problem (Image by <a href="http://www.thinkstockphotos.com/image/stock-photo-queenfish-in-the-hook-and-fishing-net/520129734">duybox/ Thinkstock</a>)</p>

Stocks of edible fish have plummeted while in areas such as west Africa the number of vessels involved in illegal activities is a major problem (Image by duybox/ Thinkstock)

A major conference on the world’s oceans starting Monday will highlight the need for joint action on combatting the huge, and worsening, problems faced by the world’s marine environment.

The Our Ocean conference, in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, features keynote speeches from the country’s foreign minister Heraldo Muñoz and US Secretary of State John Kerry. The gathering of policymakers, academics and non-governmental organisations will attempt to find solutions to deal with illegal fishing, marine plastic pollution, ocean acidification and its relation to climate change.

Moreover, the conference will seek to encourage the creation of protected areas that preserve the marine ecosystem. Illegal fishing, and the role that major fish-consuming nations such as China play in it, will be a big theme at the two-day conference.

China’s vast fishing fleet has been accused of flagrant overfishing off the west coast of Africa, adding the world’s biggest consumer of fish to a rogue’s gallery of nations that are stretching the world’s seafood resources to breaking point. Chinese fishing fleets trawling the west African coast have misreported the scale of their vessels and the size of their catches to governments that control the coastal waters. This has put Chinese fleets under even sharper focus than European and Korean fleets, also blamed for depleting the world’s stocks of edible fish.

With 462 vessels operating off the west coast of Africa, China has the biggest fleet in areas where almost 50 other foreign nations are estimated to operate. China is also responsible for the highest number of recorded breaches of fishing rules.

Marine organisations describe illegal fishing as a combination of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activity, or IUU in official terms – and as much as 90% of fishing takes place in exclusive economic zones, where most of the harmful activity occurs.

In response, The Global Ocean Commission has issued a number of proposals, including proposals to eliminate IUU fishing. In its 2014 report From Decline to Recovery: A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean, the Commission says the estimated value of illegal fishing ranges between US$10 billion and US$23.5 billion annually – accounting for 18% of the total global catch.

However, as these catches are by definition illegal and not reported, reliable estimates of illicit activity are difficult to calculate, which suggests the actual value may be much more.

“In many parts of the world, measures to constrain overfishing are virtually certain to fail unless illegality is effectively tackled,” said Global Ocean Commission co-chair and former President of Costa Rica José María Figueres. “Curbing illegal fishing is a vital step towards restoring the ecological health of the global ocean, and so realising its full economic potential.”

Illegal fishing is such a big problem for ocean management because there is no clear way of assessing the problem accurately.

The impacts of overfishing are multiple and extensive, points out Maria Damanaki, former EU Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries and current global managing director for oceans at The Nature Conservancy.

“Illegal fishing harms us on many levels,” she said. “It puts additional, unchecked, pressure on fish stocks; it undermines our conservation efforts; it disrupts markets with unfair competition; it works against law-abiding fishermen; and it harms all coastal communities, especially those in developing countries.”

Illegal fishing covers a wide range of activities. It can involve fishing off-season, trawling in prohibited waters, netting protected species, using banned equipment, exceeding catch quotas, fishing by unlicensed or stateless vessels, and the use of flags of convenience to avoid regulation. Unauthorised fishing is linked to other types of organised crime, including the transport of illegal drugs and weapons.

Illegal fishing happens because of several, and often overlapping, reasons. Some nations register vessels despite having neither the capability nor the will to monitor their activities. The majority of trawlers and fish factory ships lack a unique identifying mark and ownership, and flags and names are easily changed.

In some cases, operators caught fishing illegally change name or flag, and continue as before.

Moreover, countries that want to stop illegal fishing lack the capabilities to monitor and intervene, while market regulation is weak, enabling illegal catches to be sold with impunity.

Subsidies in the EU, US, China and Japan allow unprofitable vessels or companies to continue operations, bloating overcapacity and preventing the enforcement of quotas and bans. The biggest problem, say observers, is that illegal catches can still find their way onto the market. For example, one boat might transport the catches of multiple vessels to port, effectively ‘laundering’ the catches of vessels working illegally.

International agencies have tried for the past few decades to combat illegal fishing and promote responsible management of fisheries. In October 1995, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, a voluntary code that most countries have failed to adhere to, according to a 2007 report from WWF.

Then, in 2001, nations signed up to the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, another voluntary agreement that was deeply flawed because of inadequate certification, according to an independent study commissioned by the EU.

At present, the EU is using trade sanctions to punish nations that do not tackle IUU fishing. Fish from those countries cannot be imported to the EU, nor can their vessels trawl EU waters.

Further agreements were struck by the FAO, such as the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) in 2009,which aims to deny port access to vessels listed as having engaged or supported IUU fishing activities.

The Global Ocean Commission has advocated that the PSMA be implemented as soon as possible, but only 14 nations have ratified the code, far short of the 25 signatures required before it can enter into force.

Efforts to curb illegal fishing in the past few decades have failed to reverse a huge build-up of a huge amount of fishing capacity since the 1960s. Bringing all those vessels under regulation and eliminating surplus capacity will be a gradual process. For certain, illegal fishing will not be stopped overnight. And often the countries that say they are now taking the toughest action bear much of the historical responsibility for bad practices. Once stocks in their own waters declined, EU nations for decades fished illegally off the west coast of Africa.

These days, much of the focus on illegal fishing relates to Chinese boats, particularly vessels that misreport their tonnage.


A Chinese journalist found that the size of the vessels as reported to west African nations was much smaller than the volumes registered in China – in some instances by 50%. Tonnage, which equates to the cargo-carrying capacity of a vessel, is calculated by the home nation in accordance with the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) 1969 International Convention on Tonnage Measurement of Ships.

Because of declining fish stocks, some nations limit both the number and tonnage of ships operating in specific areas. Also, foreign vessels are required to pay fishing fees and obtain licenses. Tonnage is often used to calculate fees – smaller boats pay less.

Fisheries off west Africa are among the world’s most plentiful, and are also the site of some of the worst illegal fishing, in part because the region’s low level of economic development hinders effective management and enforcement. The sale of fishing licenses also brings essential revenue. West Africa loses US$1.3 billion from illicit fishing each year, with Senegal alone suffering an estimated annual loss of US$300 million.

Researchers from Canada’s University of British Columbia reported in 2009 that illegal fishing accounted for 37% of the total annual catch in the central and eastern Atlantic, much higher than the global average of 18%.

The management of the high seas, as opposed to exclusive economic zones, is even harder, as no one nation has responsibility and the areas involved are vast. The nation a vessel is registered in has jurisdiction over its activities and the responsibility to combat illegal fishing. The nation of registration also often assists regional fishery bodies in investigating and handling incidents of IUU fishing.

But vessels engaged in such activities often do not fly any flag, meaning the nation of registration cannot be identified and follow-up action cannot be taken. The Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources reported 17 vessels engaged in illegal fishing (all from non-signatory nations). Seven vessels (three from Nigeria, two from Mauritania and one each from Tanzania and Iran) were flying flags, the rest were not.

The majority of these boats continued fishing in the region despite having been added to a blacklist. Similarly, since September 2011, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission has added 54 vessels to its blacklist – only six of which flew a national flag.

Vicious circle

There’s a vicious circle at work: the scarcer seafood resources become, the more people fight to get their hands on them. And countries are having to deploy increasingly extreme measures to combat the problem. In May this year, the Indonesian navy in a single day blew up 41 boats that had been impounded for illegal fishing as a sign of its determination to stamp out illegal fishing.

But fierce competition for resources in the region might have played a role too. One vessel was Chinese, the others from Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian nations.

Nor was this the first such action – two Thai boats were blown up in December and a Malaysian boat in January. Indonesia’s President Widodo introduced the policy of destroying illegal fishing boats when he came to power in October last year, saying that illegal fishing was costing the country US$20 billion annually.

But such an approach is rare and could not be applied on the high seas. Also, destroying the boats is expensive and environmental groups have complained that resulting pollution from fuel and debris will harm the oceans.

The Global Ocean Commission has said it would like to see range of control measures taken when vessels are registered, during fishing, when catches are unloaded and in the marketplace. For example, countries could refuse to register vessels with a record of illegal fishing; and the IMO’s existing system of serial numbers and vessel tracking could be applied to fishing boats on the high seas.

This would require boats to have a permanent and unique number, allowing for easy tracking and making changes of name less effective.


Tougher measures would also involve stronger monitoring and enforcement by regional fishery bodies; and all vessels could be required to abide by the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea and Fish Stocks Agreement, with vessels regulated accordingly. Through the PSMA, vessels fishing illegally could be banned from ports in order to prevent catches being landed. But this is something that will require international cooperation, as failure to prevent such vessels entering a single port would undo all efforts.

In China, a revision of the Fishing Law is currently out for consultation. Zhou Wei, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace China, told chinadialogue she hopes China will adopt a hands-on approach deployed by fully-developed nations and assume greater responsibility to combat the problem.

But the most effective place to combat illegal and overfishing may be in the marketplace rather than seas. Preventing the sale of illegal catches, committing to sourcing sustainable seafood or ensuring that big profits can’t be made from illegal fishing could remove many of the incentives.