Illegal Fishing

Illegal Fishing


Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a global problem that poses a real and imminent threat to marine ecosystems and the sustainability of fish stocks.[1] The term encompasses three forms of fishing:

  1. Illegal fishing, which includes fishing without a valid license, fishing in a closed or prohibited area, or fishing that violates national laws or international obligations;
  2. Unreported fishing, which refers to fishing activities that have been underreported or not reported at all to the relevant authorities; and
  3. Unregulated fishing, meaning that a vessel fishes within the regulatory zone of a Regional Fisheries Management Organisation to which it is not a party, or that a vessel fishes outside of regulated zones.

Fishing activities that qualify as IUU fishing are carried out by both authorised and non-authorised fishers – for instance, fishers, although authorised, may not fully and accurately report their catch to the relevant authorities. The phenomenon occurs not only on the high seas, but also in exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of coastal states as well as on rivers and other inland fisheries. However, it is acknowledged that the problem is particularly severe in marine fisheries.

The effects of IUU fishing, which is a phenomenon that occurs in every ocean, are felt in the social, economic and ecological spheres, and result in adverse consequences for marine ecosystems, coastal communities and states. In fact, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) considers IUU fishing as a global threat to food security.[2]

IUU fishing is attractive to fishers because of the high rate-of-return that is made possible by the avoidance of taxes and other duties. Furthermore, species that are at risk of extinction, and are protected by national or international regulations, often have a very high value on the market, which makes IUU fishing of these species highly lucrative. According to a study conducted in 2008, the economic loss of IUU fishing is estimated at 10 to 23 billion dollars globally.[3] This roughly equates to between 11 and 26 million tonnes of illegally caught fisheries products reaching the global market annually. However, and due to the illegal nature of these activities, these figures are likely to be underestimates.[4]

On the side of the enforcement and regulating agencies, particularly lower-income countries often do not have the means to effectuate governance mechanisms and enforce regulations off their coasts. This explains why the problem of IUU fishing is particularly prevalent near the coasts of developing countries. Furthermore, in some cases there is a lack of authorisation and supervision by states of vessels assuming their flag. This makes it easy for fishers to engage in illegal activities with impunity.

Due to the severe consequences of IUU fishing, and the recognition thereof, various institutions, initiatives and instruments have emerged in an attempt to more effectively control and tackle IUU fishing. The European Union, which is the largest market of fisheries products worldwide with 40% of global imports,[5] has a wide set of rules to combat illegal fishing, the cornerstone of which is the European Commission Regulation on IUU (Regulation 1005/2008). In addition, there are several other regional and international institutions and initiatives that deal with the issue of IUU.

To Summarise:

The Issue

The global stocks of fish are depleting at a rapid rate, and an increasing number of species are at risk of extinction. The fact that fish are a valuable commodity – especially rare and protected species are of high value – has led to a surge in transnational and organised criminal activity in this area.

Fisheries crime:

  • undermines conservation efforts;
  • threatens global food security and livelihoods of fishery-dependent communities;
  • leads to the destabilisation of vulnerable coastal regions due to limited law enforcement capabilities and corruption; and
  • is often linked to other crimes, including money laundering, fraud, human trafficking and drug trafficking.

Activities that can be regarded as IUU fishing include the harvesting of prohibited species, and fishing out-of-season, over the set quota or without a license.

The Response

In order to combat IUU fishing, tools need to be introduced at a national and international level to prevent illegal fishing operators from benefiting economically from these activities 

Among the international actors that have created units and have put in place instruments aimed at combating fisheries crimes are the EU, the FAO, and INTERPOL. In addition, cooperation on a regional basis has resulted in specific initiatives.

[1] “Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing”, accessed 1 July 2013,

[2] “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2006.”, accessed 3 December 2014,

[3] “Estimating the Worldwide Extent of Illegal Fishing“, accessed 3 December 2014,

[4] An Independent Review of the EU Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Regulations, accessed 31 Oct. 2013,

[5] „European fisheries in figures“, accessed 1 December 2014,

International Action

The social, environmental and economic consequences of IUU fishing have become increasingly apparent in recent years, which highlighted the need for international action that would combat IUU fishing activities.

The Committee on Fisheries (COFI) of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in March 1991 demanded the development of new concepts that would result in more responsible, sustainable fisheries. Afterwards, the International Conference on Responsible Fishing was held in 1992 in Cancun (Mexico). The conference further requested the FAO to prepare an International Code of Conduct to address concerns related to IUU fishing. The outcome of this Conference, in particular the Declaration of Cancun, was an important contribution to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), and thus to its Agenda 21. Following this, the United Nations Conference on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks was convened. In November 1993, another important step was taken with the adaptation of the Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas at the twenty-seventh Session of the FAO Conference.

With these and other developments related to fisheries emerging, the Governing Bodies of the FAO called for a global Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. Such a Code should be consistent with existing instruments and establish non-mandatory principles and standards that would lead to the conservation, and sustainable management and development of global fisheries. It was adopted in unanimously adopted in 1995 by the FAO Conference, and guides national and international efforts to ensure the sustainable exploitation of fish stocks.[1]

As part of the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, the voluntary International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IPOA-IUU) has been put in place. The IPOA-IUU aims to “prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing by providing all States with comprehensive, effective and transparent measures by which to act, including through appropriate regional fisheries management organisations established in accordance with international law”.[2] The IPOA-IUU should be implemented by all States in accordance with a number of approaches and principles, including ensuring comprehensiveness and integrity, transparency and non-discrimination. Furthermore, the implementation of the Plan should be consistent with long-term sustainability goals.

Besides FAO, INTERPOL is also actively promoting instruments and measures to combat fisheries crime. The Fisheries Crime Working Group, which was formed in 1992 and is part of INTERPOL’s Environmental Crime Unit,

Under the INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme, the Fisheries Crime Working Group focuses on projects that aim to detect and combat fisheries crime. 

Another notable initiative by INTERPOL that focuses on detecting, supressing and combatting illegal fishing activities is Project Scale. It attempts to do so mainly by (1) raising awareness about such crimes and their consequences; (2) promoting the establishment of National Environment Security Task Forces (NESTs) that would enable more effective cooperation between national agencies and international organisations; (3) assessing the specific needs of vulnerable countries; (4) facilitating a variety of operations that, among others, lead to the disruption of trafficking routes and the enforcement of national legislations.[3]

[1] Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, accessed 26 July 2013,

[2] About IPOA-IUU, accessed 3 December 2014,

Featured International Institutions

Featured International Initiatives

Featured International Instruments

EU Action

In addition to the International Action outlined above, the EU is a regional actor that has done considerable work on IUU fishing.[1] The major legal instrument put in place by the EU is Council Regulation (EC) No 1005/2008, which aims to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing where affected products are traded with the EU or when EU nationals are involved in such activities. The Regulation, which agreed on by the Council on 29 September 2008, entered into force on 1 January 2010.

The Regulation imposes the following specific terms concerning fishing:[2]

  • only marine fisheries products validated as legal by the relevant flag state or exporting state can be imported to or exported from the EU;
  • a European black list has been drawn up covering both IUU vessels and states that turn a blind eye to illegal fishing activities; and
  • EU operators who fish illegally anywhere in the world, under any flag, face substantial penalties proportionate to the economic value of their catch, which deprive them of any profit.

The EU Council Regulation on IUU Fishing of 29 September 2008 will be operationalised across Member States according to Commission Regulation (EC) No 1010/2009, which lays down detailed rules for the implementation of Council Regulation (EC) No 1005/2008 establishing a Community system to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing. It provides rules concerning areas such as port inspections, catch certificates and cooperation with third countries.

A 2011 report by the EU Parliament Committee on Fisheries on “Combatting Illegal Fishing at the Global Level – The Role of the EU”,[3] regards IUU fishing as “a major environmental and economic problem worldwide” and “one of the most serious threats facing the biodiversity of the world’s oceans”. The report makes a number of recommendations concerning, besides others, the cooperation between regional and international organisations on the issue of IUU fishing, the need for new EU instruments and the need to gear more aid towards monitoring, control and surveillance programmes in developing countries. The report also includes a reference to a 2011 UN Report on “Transnational Organised Crime in the Fishing Industry”,[4] and quotes a number of recommendations that “deserve support by the EU”, which includes:

  • improving the investigative capacity into organised criminal activities at sea, including by expanding coordination among the many different law enforcement agencies involved (customs, financial crime, drug trafficking, etc.); improving transparency and traceability of fish to expose criminal activities and reduce their profits;
  • monitoring, of preferably prohibit, the sale of used fishing vessels to companies with untraceable beneficial owners, registered under flags of non-compliance; and
  • improving monitoring of fishing vessels activities and their interactions with merchant vessels.

Following this, a "black list" has been established as part of EU Council Regulation No 1005/2008 and is used to ban the import of fisheries products from vessels of certain countries for the first time in March 2014. The Council of Ministers has, acting on a proposal by the EC, effectuated measures that will ban the import of fisheries products caught by vessels flying under the banned countries’ flags and simultaneously banning EU vessels to fish in these countries’ waters.

Preceeding this effort, warnings were issued to Fiji, Panama, Togo and Vanuatu in 2012 [5], however, they are no longer being investigated due to an increasing will to join the EU in combatting IUU fishing. Cambodia, Curacao, Guinea-Conakry, Korea, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines have also received warnings in the subsequent years, with Sri-Lanka remaining under investigation [6]. The EC has also proposed that Belieze be removed from its blacklist of non-cooperating third countries in October 2014, after the country displayed a renewed committment and made structural adjustments toward the eradication of IUU fishing. [7]

More recently, in April 2015, the EU warned Thailand that it had six months to control illegal vessels before an import ban would be imposed [8], which caused over 5000 vessels to stop operating. Similarly, in October 2015, the EC threatened Taiwan and the Comoros they also had six months to take stronger action against illegal fishing or risk an indetnification procedure, known as a "red card", and a possible import ban.[9]


[1] “Fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing”, accessed 8 December 2014,

[2] “Illegal fishing (IUU). The EU rules to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing”, accessed 5 July 2013,

[3] “REPORT on combating illegal fishing at the global level - the role of the EU”, accessed 8 December 2014,

[4] “Transnational Organized Crime in the Fishing Industry.”, accessed 8 December 2014,

[5] “EU’s fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing“, accessed 9 December 2014,

[6] “Sri Lanka faces EU fish export ban”, accessed 9 December 2014,

[7] “EU fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing”. Accessed 19 January, 2016 from

[8] “Thai crackdown on illegal fishing threatens industry”, Accessed 19 January, 2016 from

[9] EU warns Taiwan over illegal fishing or risk ban”. Accessed 19 January, 2016 from

Featured EU Institutions

Featured EU Initiatives

Featured EU Instruments

  • EU Regulation 1005/2008/EC

    Regulation (EC) No 1005/2008 of 29 September 2008 establishing a Community system to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, amending Regulations (EEC) No 2847/93, (EC) No 1936/2001 and (EC) No 601/2004 and repealing Regulations (EC) No 1093/94 and (EC) No 1447/1999
  • EU Regulation 1010/2009/EC

    Regulation (EC) No 1010/2009 of 22 October 2009 laying down detailed rules for the implementation of Council Regulation (EC) No 1005/2008 establishing a Community system to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing

Role of Earth Observation

In order to combat IUU fishing, it is important to be able to track the movement and activities of vessels. By allowing authorities to view the movement of vessels and identifying suspicious behaviour or movement, the use of earth observation tools, or satellite surveillance, can support efforts to curb illegal fishing.

Enforcement authorities can make use of satellite AIS (Automatic Identification System) and satellite imaging data. AIS data are collected from transponders that are installed on vessels, whereas satellite imaging makes use of images from satellites to track specific vessels.

Two notable initiatives aim to make use of such technology to improve the monitoring and enforcement of illegal activities on the world’s oceans and seas.

SeaSearch, according to the project’s website, “combines several satellite surveillance systems […] in order to provide a global, near real-time, maritime situation awareness picture, which makes it a game changer for maritime security; such a picture can help law enforcement authorities detect smuggling activities, improve safety and security of marine traffic worldwide and support fishing enforcement authorities.“[1] The project is currently under development.

Similarly, Global Fishing Watch, an initiative by Skytruth, Oceana and Google, also uses data from AIS transponders, and analyses movement patterns to determine whether or not a vessel is fishing. The project, it is hoped, will “give governments, non-government organizations and the public the ability to monitor where illegal fishing is taking place.”[2] A prototype of the technology has been launched in November 2014.


[1] “SeaSearch“, accessed 11 December 2014,

[2] “Google, Partners Target Illegal Fishing With New Technology”, accessed 11 December 2014,


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