Turning the Tide? Learning from Responses to Large-Scale Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing in Five Countries

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Indonesian personnel conduct a simulation of capturing foreign-flagged vessels, November 2019. Courtesy of PA Images/Teguh Prihatna

A new study sheds light on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, showing how countries can tailor their specific strategies to combat this major security challenge.

Executive Summary

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing poses not only a systemic threat to the environment, but also a sustained threat to national and regional security. Valued at an estimated $10–23.5 billion per year, much IUU fishing takes place on a systematic and industrial scale for profit, with these large-scale operations increasingly recognised as a form of transnational organised crime.

In recognition of the scale and sophistication of this threat, a growing number of policy recommendations have been made to help shape national and international responses. Yet progress in developing effective and practical measures has in many cases been limited. The result has been a collective failure, at a systemic level, to provide an adequate global response.

This lack of progress has rarely been the subject of detailed cross-regional analysis. Indeed, while many affected jurisdictions have enacted key measures to address IUU fishing, little work has been done to assess the extent to which these measures have effectively mitigated the role that transnational organised crime plays in the IUU fishing industry.

This report seeks to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of this area, considering obstacles to, and opportunities for, more effective action. It does so by examining experiences in five countries: Indonesia; Thailand; Vietnam; Tanzania; and South Africa. In each case, the report examines the approaches taken by those states and the successes and failures of their policies – aiming, in the process, to contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the obstacles to – and opportunities for – more effective action.

On the basis of a comprehensive literature review, 106 semi-structured interviews and four focus groups across the case study countries, this report outlines the key features of the multidimensional threat posed by organised, large-scale IUU fishing across the focus countries. It points, in particular, to high levels of convergence between this and other crimes, adding further complexity to the nature of the challenge posed by IUU fishing.

In responding to this threat, the report considers the range of challenges encountered in bolstering legislative, regulatory and institutional frameworks, strengthening detection and interdiction capabilities, and enhancing investigation and prosecution. These range from an insufficient prioritisation of the upskilling of the human resources needed to operate new technologies sustainably, to uneven application of new legislation and regulations, to challenges ensuring that officers possess the breadth of skills required to identify the broader crimes with which IUU fishing intersects, among many others. In considering experiences in these areas, the report also identifies a number of opportunities to address these challenges, highlighting successes and best practice where these have emerged.

To ensure progress in tackling the multidimensional threat posed, it is crucial that this real-world experience is regularly accounted for, with lessons learned translated into updated policy and practice. Based on the analysis, the following recommendations are offered to support this process. These do not seek to reiterate global recommendations made elsewhere, which affected countries worldwide have already sought to apply. Rather, they offer specific guidance on tailoring existing approaches, based on the lessons derived from the study of these five countries.

Recommendation 1: Strengthening legislation and sanctions. Where efforts are made to strengthen legislation, proactive measures should be taken to ensure that this can be easily implemented in practice. Prior to passing legislation, attention should be paid to ensure that new laws do not contradict or stand apart from other legal frameworks, are not passed without repealing earlier legislation, and are accompanied by appropriate implementation guidance in all relevant local languages. This can be achieved by instituting systematic, whole-of-government consultation mechanisms, involving civil society and the private sector as appropriate.

Recommendation 2: Reforming licensing and other regulatory regimes. Where efforts are made to reform licensing and other regulatory regimes, these should be considered holistically, with systematic, standardised and active consultative processes instituted in all cases to limit unintended consequences, anticipate drivers of non-compliance and provide realistic timeframes for compliance. Where relevant, accountability gaps within decentralised or devolved political systems should be prioritised in terms of further reforms.

Recommendation 3: Designing multi-agency structures. When designing multi-agency structures to respond to large-scale IUU fishing, those responsible should ensure, at design phase, that these are situated in the appropriate part of government to ensure authority over all constituent parts, do not duplicate existing initiatives, and are granted means to reliably access the assets and resources they need.

Recommendation 4: Bolstering cross-border cooperation. When seeking to bolster cross-border cooperation, immediate priority should be placed on encouraging ratification of all international instruments related to large-scale IUU fishing and associated criminal activity. At a regional level, where obstacles to coordination persist, alternative approaches – including support for bilateral or sub-regional groupings – should be pursued as stepping stones to future regional action.

Recommendation 5: Strengthening surveillance systems. When instituting new and strengthening existing surveillance systems, sustainability must be a central consideration, requiring realistic long-term planning around ongoing running costs, maintenance and the development of human capacity to sustainably use and tangibly benefit from technological solutions.

Recommendation 6: Bolstering sea and air patrols. In seeking to bolster the effectiveness of sea and air patrols, realistic appraisals must be made around sustainability and cost, and
innovative approaches adopted to ensure effective intelligence-led targeting. A potentially replicable model is offered by Thailand’s data-driven, risk-based approach to targeting.
Cross-border initiatives to ensure that targeting is informed by cross-border data analysis and sharing are also essential.

Recommendation 7: Enhancing the effectiveness of port inspections. When looking to enhance port inspections, interventions should ensure that those mandated to conduct inspections of fishing vessels are trained to go ‘beyond fish’, with the ability to spot labour and other associated criminal violations. Dedicated training institutions should be supported to diversify skills in this regard, with the FishFORCE academy offering a useful model. In parallel, paper-based inspection systems must be replaced by electronic systems as a matter of urgency, with a potential model offered by the ‘single-window’ system used in Thailand.

Recommendation 8: Strengthening investigation and prosecution. Where working to strengthen investigation and prosecution, enhanced training in evidence-collection techniques for investigators should be prioritised through dedicated domestic institutions. Prosecutorial capacity should also be built, with a focus on closer and earlier consultation with investigators. Options to achieve this include: the development of IUU fishing-specific Rapid Reference Guides; the provision of financial investigation training; and, where appropriate, the establishment of specialised courts, whereby investigators are able to consult prosecutors with expertise on IUU fishing for specialist advice.


Charlie de Rivaz

Former Research Fellow, OCP

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Cathy Haenlein

Director of Organised Crime and Policing Studies

Organised Crime and Policing

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Alexandria Reid

Associate Fellow | SHOC Network Member - Researcher

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Veerle Nouwens

External Author | Former RUSI Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific

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