Below the Surface: How Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Threatens our Security

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This paper argues that large-scale illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing takes place on an organised, systematic scale across multiple jurisdictions, and must therefore be recognised as transnational organised crime. Such IUU fishing endangers food security, threatens livelihoods, undermines the rule of law and deprives states of revenues. It also intersects with other crimes, further amplifying the threat to security.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is conventionally treated by governments worldwide as the result of technical regulatory infringements. As such, it is often deemed a matter for industry regulators and dismissed as a trivial issue insofar as it relates to national security.

This diagnosis is flawed. Certainly, IUU fishing is often small in scale and conducted by artisanal fishers out of ignorance of laws, or opportunism. Yet there is also evidence that much of today’s IUU fishing activity takes place on an organised, systematic scale across multiple jurisdictions. Testament to this are the volumes involved. Although numerous difficulties affect such calculations, global losses to IUU fishing have been estimated at some $10–23.5 billion annually – equivalent to 11–26 million tonnes of fish per year.

The result is the plunder of the world’s oceans, threatening not only marine ecosystems, but also the security of human populations. Large-scale IUU fishing endangers food security, threatens livelihoods, undermines the rule of law and deprives states of revenues. It also intersects with other crimes, further amplifying the threat to security. Yet research on these security dimensions is limited and fragmented; our understanding of their dynamics remains partial. Policy and practical responses, meanwhile, remain ill-suited, failing to keep pace with the complexity of the threat posed.


This paper makes the following recommendations for governments, NGOs and international agencies looking to address the security dimensions of large-scale IUU fishing:

  1. Recognise large-scale IUU fishing as transnational organised crime. There is a critical need for policymakers and practitioners to treat high-volume IUU fishing as more than a fisheries management problem. Large-scale IUU fishing is transnational organised crime and must be recognised and treated as such. A paradigm shift is needed in the way we view and respond to the phenomenon, to ensure that responses are commensurate with the scale, complexity and diversity of the threat faced.
  2. Recognise large-scale IUU fishing as ‘convergence crime’. Awareness that large-scale IUU fishing commonly occurs in conjunction with other crime types must increase. Policymakers must adapt to a more sophisticated operating reality, with front line investigators trained to recognise not just IUU fishing, but also crimes such as human trafficking and corruption. Broader responses must draw on expertise associated with all crime types involved, in an integrated, multi-agency approach.
  3. Strengthen domestic legislation. States must strengthen fisheries legislation and harmonise all other relevant laws, such that penalties and the likelihood of their application create real deterrence. Domestic criminalisation must meet the criteria – a four-year minimum custodial sentence – for large-scale IUU fishing to qualify as serious crime under the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC).
  4. Strengthen international responses. International-level reform is required to ensure that IUU fishing is recognised under UNTOC, conferring binding obligations on 179 states to cooperate on law enforcement action. Global bodies must also clarify roles and responsibilities, address overlapping mandates and deepen cooperative arrangements.
  5. Strengthen monitoring and enforcement. Capacity building to interdict those engaged in large-scale IUU fishing and associated crimes must be provided. To further facilitate monitoring and enforcement, vessels above a certain size and/or operating beyond the jurisdiction of flag states must be required to have International Maritime Organization numbers – as must their owners.
  6. Bolster information sharing. Overlaps between IUU fishing and other crimes challenge the common separation of national fisheries management and policing agencies. Flexibility is needed to match perpetrators’ shifting portfolios, as is stronger collaboration between coast guards, customs, immigration, anti-narcotics, fisheries management and financial crime agencies, as well as international organisations.
  7. Expand regional approaches and partnerships. Promising initiatives already underway must be more fully resourced and prioritised. Innovative regional and multisectoral approaches, such as FISH-i Africa, should be expanded, scaled up and replicated as models in other, particularly financially constrained, locations.
  8. Bolster efforts to prevent fish laundering. More states must be persuaded to ratify the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate IUU Fishing, to ensure that no port is used as a shelter for non-compliance. Implementation of the Agreement must also be supported through sustained capacity building in developing coastal and small-island states.
  9. Expand multilateral initiatives. In light of its organised and poly-threat nature, the priority assigned to large-scale IUU fishing under multilateral maritime security initiatives should increase. Defence and security-focused programmes that prioritise maritime security but exclude IUU fishing should be expanded to include it.
  10. Follow the money. Financial investigation tools should be used to reveal ownership information, uncover money laundering and tax fraud, and make strategic arrests of the true beneficiaries of high-volume IUU fishing. To enable this, legislative reform in many jurisdictions to provide for IUU fishing as a predicate offence to money laundering is crucial.
  11. Prosecute under alternative legislation. Crime convergence provides options to arrest and prosecute perpetrators using laws other than those relating to fisheries. For example, prosecution of large-scale IUU operators under economic crimes legislation may increase the prospects for imposing substantial penalties where associated crimes carry weightier sentences.
  12. End use of flags of convenience. To bolster enforcement, the exploitation of flags of convenience must be ended. This could be achieved by encouraging flag-of-convenience states to close registries, by requiring coastal states not to issue licences to flag-of-convenience vessels, and by pursuing action by regional fisheries management organisations and international bodies.


Cathy Haenlein

Director of Organised Crime and Policing Studies

Organised Crime and Policing

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