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Experts highlight the scope of the threat in the Indo-Pacific region

Part 1 of a 2-part series. Read part 2: The Global Battle Against Illicit Fishing

Quick take:

  • Research suggests that up to one in five fish is caught and sold illegally worldwide.
  • Officials say that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is replacing piracy as the world’s top maritime security threat.
  • IUU fishing activities threaten the world’s ocean ecosystems and place law-abiding fisheries at a disadvantage.
  • Low levels of enforcement provide an entry point for maritime crime such as arms smuggling, drug running and human trafficking.
  • Weakly managed fisheries, inshore poaching by foreign vessels, and illegal activities by licensed ships are the biggest contributors to the IUU problem in the Indo-Pacific region.

Honolulu, HAWAII – October 24, 2021: 10.45am (EWC): As much as 25 million tons of fish are believed to be lost globally each year to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activity—known as IUU fishing—resulting in the depletion of local fish stocks and major economic losses.

Research suggests that up to one in five fish is caught and sold illegally worldwide, worth an estimated $23.5 billion annually. Some enforcement officials say that IUU fishing has now replaced piracy as the world’s top maritime security threat.

Experts from government, civil organizations and private industry explored the scope of the problem and its impact on coastal communities during this year’s virtual Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange conference, hosted by the Navy League of the US Honolulu Council in partnership with the East-West Center, the Daniel K. Inouye Center for Asia-Pacific Security Studies, and Pacific Forum. Each year, the conference focuses on a different topic to facilitate dialogue on maritime security issues in the region.

Low risk, high reward
Examples of IUU fishing activities that threaten the world’s ocean ecosystems and place law-abiding fisheries at a disadvantage include commercial fishing without a license, failing to report catches, keeping fish that are protected by maritime regulations, fishing in closed areas, and the unauthorized transshipment of fish. The simple fact, explained Gina Fiore, a senior associate at the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Ending Illegal Fishing project, is that “IUU fishing is a relatively low risk, high reward activity.”

Mark Zimring, large scale fisheries director at The Nature Conservancy, said that the vast majority of IUU fishing activity in the Indo-Pacific region—more than 95 percent, according to estimates—is perpetrated by licensed vessels. “It is not dark boats operating under the cover of night that are causing the most of the problem,” he said. Instead, weakly managed fisheries, inshore poaching by foreign vessels, and illegal activities by offshore licensed vessels are three of the biggest contributors to IUU fishing in the region.

Chinese fishing boats leave port following an annual three-
month summer moratorium. Photo: VCG/Getty Images

“Socioeconomically, IUU is rooted in the inherent economic loss created by the rapid reduction of fish stocks,” said maritime security expert Dr. Aysurah Salleh, special advisor to the Yokusuka Council on Asia Pacific Studies. As an example, she cited the huge Southeast Asian island of Borneo, where contested seaways spanning several nations and a degrading marine habitat threaten the long stretch of surrounding coastline, leading to more rampant IUU practices. The adjacent South China Sea, which provides for 12 percent of global catch, has seen a steep decline in fish stocks compared to previous decades, she said, in part due to overfishing.

Entry point for maritime crime
In addition, Saleh said, fishing vessels on the high seas provide a convenient platform for criminal activity like arms smuggling, drug running and human trafficking. “Low levels of enforcement provide an entry point for maritime crime perpetrators,” she said, adding that weak enforcement against IUU fishing can potentially result in national security breaches.

Tabitha Grace Mallory, founder and CEO of the consulting firm China Ocean Institute and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, said that China’s position as the world’s largest fishing nation, producing about 36 percent of global catch, has allowed Chinese vessels to engage in harmful fishing practices with impunity.

China tops the IUU Fishing Index, which measures states that have the highest levels of IUU fishing and tracks how effective their response is. According to the index, Taiwan, Cambodia, Russia, and Vietnam are also among the worst-performing states in combating IUU practices.

An Indonesian crew prepares to fish in contested South
China Sea waters. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images.

The need for global cooperation
While conservation groups and government agencies have proposed different solutions to tackling IUU fishing activity, there is widespread consensus regarding the need for greater international cooperation and awareness.

Dr. Richard R. Vuylsteke, president of the East-West Center in Honolulu, noted that the severity and magnitude of IUU fishing has not been recognized on the global stage, as the nations most impacted by these violations do not have a strong enough platform to raise sufficient consciousness of the issue. “Small-scale legal fishermen draw emptier nets, developing countries are robbed of capital, and many species of fish and other maritime life are being decimated,” he said.

Admiral Linda Fagan, vice commander of the US Coast Guard, noted that roughly 90 percent of global commerce travels by sea. “We’re connected by the sea; our economies, our very lifestyles and way of life are bound by the sea,” she said. “This is truly a global problem that is interconnected and certainly quite complex.”

Read part 2 of this series: The Global Battle Against Illicit Fishing.

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