Illegal Fishing Threatens Far More Than Ocean Health

Lax fisheries enforcement helps warlords, smugglers, and other law-breakers

Fishing net

A member of the Ghanaian navy guards fishermen last year during an illegal fishing scenario, part of Obangame/Saharan Express, one of three exercises facilitated by the U.S. Navy off West Africa to increase awareness of maritime threats and regional cooperation on fighting crimes at sea.

© Petty Officer Luis Chavez/U.S. Navy

In February, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted a vessel identified as the Lady Michelle on the high seas north of Suriname with 4.2 tons of cocaine—worth an estimated $125 million—concealed on board. A few months earlier, about 200 migrants, who were seeking to enter the European Union illegally, died when their ship capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. And off the coast of Somalia last year, the militant group al-Shabab used ships to transport hundreds of its fighters up and down the East African coast.

In each of these cases, the boat used to carry out the nefarious activity was a fishing vessel, and the incidents highlight an increasing problem: transnational criminals exploiting poor fisheries governance to carry out crimes.

These cases are not isolated. Fishing vessels are used in a wide range of transgressions, including arms and wildlife smuggling, human trafficking, modern slavery, and more, including illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

IUU fishing accounts for up to $23.5 billion worth of seafood per year globally, or up to 1 in every 5 fish sold at market. It depletes fish populations, threatens the health of our ocean, and steals from communities that rely on fish as a valuable source of food and income. The problem is well worth solving for those reasons alone but becomes even more urgent with each new revelation of criminals using fishing vessels to carry out other major transnational crimes.

This multilayered challenge is detailed in a new report, “Below the Surface: How Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Threatens Our Security,” written by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an independent think tank in Britain, and commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The report presents a comprehensive analysis of how IUU fishing and other maritime crimes intersect and offers details on some of those cases, including the perpetrators’ ties to partners on land.

More broadly, the report emphasizes that many governments consider IUU fishing to be only an environmental crime—not a national or international security issue—and thus have not committed sufficient attention and resources to addressing it. RUSI and Pew hope the report will bring greater attention to the connections between IUU fishing and global security.

With this information, officials around the world can better recognize that addressing IUU fishing will help them fight a much broader suite of crimes, and in turn advance a dialogue on how to improve national and regional security as a whole.

Fortunately, both the report and Pew lay out a roadmap for achieving that. Historically, illegal fishers have easily evaded detection and capture with help from a battery of legal loopholes and complicit actors, including governments, port officials, and banks. By closing each gap in the system—from vessel identification and port controls to accountability by governments that issue registration flags for fishing—the international community should be able to greatly reduce maritime crime. That work is well underway, with successful efforts by Interpol to target IUU fishers, the increasing effectiveness of the Port State Measures Agreement, and improvements in satellite monitoring of the seas.

Illegal fishing is a complex issue. And it is often deeply intertwined with other crimes at sea. Follow-on reports from RUSI and others in the maritime security field will further investigate these issues, with a focus on the western Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and other regions known as IUU hotspots.

Daniel Schaeffer manages maritime security and enforcement for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ending illegal fishing project.

Explore