IUU Fishing: An Ongoing Global Issue

Bluefin tuna
Bluefin tuna. Photo courtesy of Oceana/Keith Ellenbogen.

For second-generation fisherman Dane Chauvel, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing goes against the very reason why he co-founded seafood delivery service Organic Ocean Seafood Inc. 14 years ago.

Chauvel’s company in British Columbia was built on offering not only sustainably-harvested premium products to high-end restaurants and buyers, but also supporting responsible fishermen regionally and all over the world. IUU fishing undermines it.

“Most people look at (IUU fishing) as being either a high seas or a developing nations issue,” Chauvel remarked. “And they think in the developed world … you wouldn’t have those issues. And sadly, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.” 

For decades, IUU fishing has been an ongoing issue globally, affecting all regions along multiple coasts, including the Canadian, U.S. and Mexican West Coasts. In 2020, U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Karl L. Schultz declared that “IUU fishing replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat.”

Unfair Competition

About 80% of fish consumed in the U.S. are imported, and one out of every five fish caught around the world was likely caught by IUU fishing methods, according to NOAA Fisheries. This puts law-abiding fishermen and seafood producers in the U.S. and abroad at a disadvantage in global markets, creating unfair competition.

“A lack of visibility and accountability on the open ocean is really what is allowing bad actors to operate outside of the rule of law,” said Dr. Marla Valentine, campaign manager for conservation organization Oceana’s U.S. illegal fishing and transparency campaign. “Here in the US, we are one of the world’s largest seafood importers, and unfortunately, some of our consumer dollars are supporting these crimes at sea.”

In 2019, the U.S. imported $2.4 billion worth of seafood that was the product of IUU activity, Valentine said.

“It’s estimated that if IUU imports were prevented, our U.S. domestic fishermen could increase their income by an estimated 20%,” she said. “Having a really opaque seafood supply chain can disguise the true origin of seafood, and it’s allowing IUU products to be sold to American consumers.”

Globally, IUU fishing can generate up to $23 billion a year in illegal profits, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Fishing vessels
Fishing vessels going out to sea. Photo: Oceana/Juan Cuetos.

“Some valuable Canadian fish stocks—such as tuna and salmon—also share ecosystems or migrate into areas where an increased threat of IUU fishing exists,” according to the Canadian department that oversees the country’s ocean and inland water policies. “With 75,000 Canadians employed in the fishing and aquaculture sector, the government will continue working hard to protect these livelihoods and the valuable resources they depend on.”

About 93% of the world’s major marine fish stocks have been “classified as fully exploited, overexploited or significantly depleted,” according to a 2020 United Nations report on the state of world fisheries and aquaculture.

“We have the backdrop of declining wild stocks around the world, and that puts a real motivation to conduct IUU fishing,” said Sean Wheeler, chief of international programs of conservation and protection for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “These are, in some cases, fishers who are trying to put food on their own table. There’s lots of different pressures that exist to help motivate IUU.”

Undermining Market Value

Illegally harvested fish are often sold at under market value. For example, Chauvel spoke of spot prawns, a fishery with significant IUU issues because of the way it’s processed. After they’re harvested, the head and tails are separated, with the tails frozen in brine in half-pound or one-pound tubs.

“The problem is that when you’ve got a tub of prawn tails, there’s no required identification as to the source of it; it could come from a non-commercial fishery and often does,” he said.  “And you hear stories of people that are selling spot prawns out of their home and advertising on places like Craigslist and Facebook, and you don’t know if these were legitimately harvested.”

Chauvel said he’s been pressing for a requirement that these prawns be labeled with a unique identifier.

“That would ensure the legitimacy of the spot prawns and also enable anybody along the supply chain to trace those spot prawns back to the source,” he said.

And it’s not just spot prawns.

“When we talk about illegal fishing—while there are these pockets of great work and lower risk areas—it can happen anywhere; it can affect any species,” said Lindsay Jennings, traceability senior project director at FishWise.

The Santa Cruz, California-based nonprofit works with the seafood industry on various fronts to nurture leadership in holistic sustainability.

“I think every market country needs to be concerned about illegal fishing,” she said. “Unless there’s a robust traceability system in place where you can verify all the information and have 100% assurance that there’s no illegal products coming into your market, it’s going to affect you in some way or another.”

Government Involvement

Government agencies have been ramping up efforts to tackle IUU fishing.

In its 2021 Report to Congress on Improving International Fisheries Management, NOAA Fisheries listed certain countries and vessel entities that engage in IUU fishing, including China, Costa Rica, Guyana, Mexico, the Russian Federation, Senegal and Taiwan.

As a consequence, the U.S. in February began denying Mexican fishing vessels that fish in the Gulf of Mexico access to U.S. ports and services.

There’s also a 21-member U.S. Interagency Working Group on IUU Fishing that includes the U.S. Coast Guard, the State Department and NOAA to counter IUU fishing and related threats to maritime security.

The Working Group teams up with the public and private sectors to coordinate their approaches in 12 priority regions where IUU fishing is prevalent. In addition, some countries within those regions don’t have the capacity to handle IUU fishing.

The priority regions are expected to be part of the Working Group’s five-year integrated strategic plan, according to NOAA.

Meanwhile, NOAA Fisheries announced in March that it is developing a species priority list that would be considered for the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, or SIMP, a tool for screening IUU fish products and mislabeled seafood from coming into the U.S. market.

SIMP currently covers 13 species groups, which encompasses about 1,100 unique species, but NOAA Fisheries is looking into possibly creating larger species groups, which could help tackle misrepresentation to get around reporting requirements. Species being considered include snappers, Atlantic Blue and Swimming crabs, King Crabs, tuna and tuna-like species.

The Canadian government has been bolstering its efforts to counter IUU fishing in recent years as well.

That includes ratifying the U.N.’s Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, boosting fishery officers’ powers to stop illegal seafood from moving through Canadian ports and giving $1.2 million to Global Fishing Watch to continue to nurture the growth of its free, open-source mapping platform to track and examine global fishing activity.

Canada also launched the Dark Vessel Detection program, a $7-million effort to find and track vessels that switch off their location-transmitting devices to avoid drawing attention to illegal activity.

Canada and the U.S. have partnered with other countries on IUU fishing enforcement. For instance, Operation North Pacific Guard, an annual operation in the high seas, brings together Canada, the U.S., Korea and Japan. The most recent operation in 2021 involved a Fisheries and Oceans Canada aircraft patrol based in Japan and the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf. The operation yielded 28 boardings and 42 violations and led to the seizure of 689 shark fins and
25 salmon.

Coast Guard cutter William Hart
The Coast Guard cutter William Hart participates in the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency’s “Operation Kurukuru” off American Samoa, on Oct. 29, 2021. “Operation Kurukuru” is an annual coordinated maritime surveillance operation with the goal of combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of the Coast Guard cutter William Hart.

In 2018, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley and the China Coast Guard boarded the fishing vessel Run Da for IUU fishing. According to the USCG, the vessel captain admitted to using driftnets up to 5.6 miles in length. The crews found a ton of squid and 80 tons of chum salmon on the vessel.

It will take partnerships on multiple fronts to combat the problem globally, including involvement from the private sector.

“I believe that companies have a big role to play,” said Jennings, of FishWise. “I think it helps communicate their commitments to tackling illegal fishing, addressing social responsibility, human rights abuses, as well as environmental sustainability.”

Stronger traceability at a company level is really important for seafood products, she added.

“I think traceability really has the power to highlight gaps and risks in supply chains and allows companies to understand areas where they need to prioritize some work with their own supply chains,” she remarked.

It’s important that the fishing industry has a voice at the table, Jennings explained.

“They’re the ones that see these issues firsthand,” she said. “They have to deal with the impacts firsthand and they’re the ones who the regulations are going to impact.”