U.S. Makes Progress to Combat Illegal Fishing

On Nov. 15, the Obama administration formally transmitted a major international treaty, aimed at cracking down on illegal fishing worldwide, to the U.S. Senate for ratification. Negotiated in 2009 and signed by four governments, the Port State Measures Treaty requires nations to monitor and stop the flow of illegal fish through their ports and into commercial markets. For example, for the first time, vessels known to have engaged in illegal fishing could be refused entry into the ports of treaty signatories.

Because the United States is one of the world's top enforcers against illegal fishing, the treaty would require other nations to match its efforts. And given America's importance and global reach, Senate ratification would send an important signal to other nations that they, too, must take action to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The treaty would come into legal force once 25 governments ratified it. 

IUU fishing represents as much as one-fifth of global reported catch and has an economic value of as much as $23 billion a year. Because of the extraordinary scope of this illegal activity, experts increasingly view IUU fishing as a serious crime with economic, food supply, environmental, and even national security implications. For example, some analysts argue that illegal fishing in the 1990s by foreign vessels in Somali waters impoverished coastal fishing communities and encouraged many desperate Somali fishermen to participate in the deadly maritime piracy making headlines today. Many fear that the same pattern is beginning to occur off the coast of West Africa.

With 80 percent of fisheries around the world fully exploited or overexploited, the impacts of illegal fishing are undermining fisheries management in national waters and on the high seas, and devastating healthy ocean ecosystems.

The Agreement on Port State Measures to Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing sets out requirements for nations to prohibit entry into port by any vessels identified as having engaged in illegal fishing. Treaty signatories are required to inspect suspected fishing vessels and share information with other nations so they can act against illegal fishers.

The U.S. government spends millions of dollars a year on fisheries enforcement through the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Customs Service (see headlines below). More participation by other countries in cracking down on this problem could take some of the enforcement burden off the U.S. government. 

Pew will actively work with Senate leaders for quick ratification of this important treaty.