The Fight Against Illegal Fishing Ramps Up

A U.S. Coast Guard cutter conducting anti-IIU fishing operations in the Cook Islands. Photo: USCG.

The global issue of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing has come to the fore in a slew of public announcements this year, including one from President Joe Biden.

His administration’s Memorandum on Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Associated Labor Abuses on June 27, noted that “illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and related harmful fishing practices are among the greatest threats to ocean health and are significant causes of global overfishing, contributing to the collapse or decline of fisheries that are critical to the economic growth, food systems and ecosystems of numerous countries around the world.”

The Executive Branch is hardly alone. A bipartisan bill, S.4773 (IS) Fighting Foreign Illegal Seafood Harvests Act of 2022 (FISH Act), was introduced by senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) in August.

Among other provisions, the FISH Act would blacklist ships caught engaging in IUU fishing. The act also directs the administration to report to Congress on “how new technologies can aid in the fight against IUU fishing, the complexities of the seafood trade relationship between Russia and China and the success of prosecutions against IUU fishermen operating in U.S. waters.”

“Alaska is the superpower of seafood, the source of roughly two-thirds of all seafood harvested in the United States,” Sullivan said in a news release. “Our fishery’s extraordinary abundance is the result of responsible stewards who’ve sustainably managed this incredible resource and followed the rules.”

“But not all vessels and countries abide by these rules,” he continued, “ravaging fish stocks without regard for other users or future generations—particularly the worst offender, China.”

“Illegal pirate fishing puts Rhode Island’s fishermen and processors who play by the rules at a disadvantage. We have to root out this practice to protect our hard-working fishing industry and ocean economy,” said Whitehouse, co-founder of the Senate Oceans Caucus, in the same press release. “The FISH Act, with my longtime Save Our Seas Act partner Sen. Sullivan, is a comprehensive effort to curb IUU fishing and restore the fisheries that sustain our vibrant and healthy ocean.”


These initiatives coincide with the publication of the National 5-Year Strategy for Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing 2022-2026 prepared by the U.S. Interagency Working Group on IUU Fishing. The report has an international focus, identifying five priority flag states and 12 priority regions as key partners and areas of focus in the fight against IUU fishing.

“IUU is an enormous deal,” said Bryan Pelach, a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer veteran and current PhD ABD who teaches research at the University of Washington as part of the Olympic National Resources Center.

During his time as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy, Pelach worked with the U.S. Coast Guard’s Oceanic Maritime Security Initiative detachment to conduct IUU fishing interdiction. Pelach has noticed an increase in anti-IUU fishing investment, if not public awareness.

“This is a very serious issue that few people are aware about mostly because it applies to places that are 2,000 miles away and it’s so hard to actively record or track,” Pelach said.

From his military field experience and academic perspective, one nation stands out among perpetrators of IUU fishing globally.

“Hands down the biggest player in terms of illegal fishing is China,” he commented. There’s a couple of others, but overwhelmingly, China is out in the Eastern Pacific and South China Sea transgressing every national and international boundary as defined in the U.N. Convention (on) the Law of the Sea. China is just barreling over everyone all the time.”

The labor abuses of IUU fishing, a main focus of Biden’s memorandum, is also a major problem with the practice. “They [Chinese fishing organizations] pluck young men from destitute communities, put them on a ship, work them 18 hours a day with no pay unless they finish a five- or six-year contract,” Pelach explained. “Then they get a small amount of money, because of course they are taking out of that pay their meals and boarding on the ship.”


Joseph Myers is the division chief of the Coast Guard’s Fishing Vessel Safety Division (CG-CVC-3) that implements policy and regulations for the commercial fishing industry. For Myers, many factors are connected when it comes to combating IUU.

“With IUU fishing, it’s many violations like pollution, piracy, trafficking and workforce competencies and training,” Myers said, citing overboard net disposal as a particular problem with IUU fishing.

“One of the big things we focus on is plastics, pollution and nets,” he explained. “If we don’t address it at all, it just compounds and festers and gets worse. So that is where it’s important for the Coast Guard as a whole, and we focus on IUU initiatives as appropriate.”

When it comes to crafting international standards, working with fellow nations is key to Myers. The Coast Guard has roles and responsibilities in this regard.

“We do help shape the text and the agenda and the initiative,” he commented. “It’s the end result.”

One Asian nation presents a thorny issue, according to Pelach.

“One of the trickiest lines to walk is with Japan, which is such a close economic and political partner in terms of United States and European policy, but has zero interest in fisheries enforcement,” he said.

“Frankly, I think they are often left off the list of transgressors because it’s bad politics on the international level,” he continued. “But there are whole programs that are funded by Japanese nonprofits that are looking at how we can possibly get Japan involved. Essentially, they are more likely to be participating in IUU than combating it.”

Pelach called for better representation of communities affected by IUU fishing in the policymaking process.

“We are still stuck in this vacuum of creating policy in D.C. for a place like Micronesia or the Marshall Islands, so that when we get on scene the policies don’t always work with those communities,” he said.

“Bringing in some type of representation from those communities that are being actively poached from will be critical to creating policy that spends our hundreds of millions of dollars effectively,” he stated, “both for the international community and the stakeholders on the ground maintaining this fight.”  

Norris Comer is a Seattle-based writer and author. His debut memoir, Salmon in the Seine: Alaskan Memories of Life, Death, & Everything In-Between is now available wherever books are sold. You can find him on Substack, Instagram and at