The difficulty of applying laws and regulations on the seas is hardly a new phenomenon. What is striking, however, is the extent to which illegalities now affect not only individuals and their livelihoods, but also national economies and the environmental sustainability of fishing itself. Lawlessness at in the fishing industry comes in a variety of forms. In addition to the abusive treatment of fishers, there are theft of fish stocks and criminal activities, including piracy and drug trading.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing steals fish from often-impoverished communities, threatens marine ecosystems and puts in serious danger the crews of the fishing vessels involved. While difficult to quantify precisely, estimates put the amount of fish caught illegally at up to 40 per cent of global landings, valued at as much as US$23.5 billion.
Illegal fishing encompasses the operation of unlicensed craft, either national or foreign, and fishing in contravention of national, regional and international fisheries regulations. It includes catching fish beyond agreed quotas, catching proscribed species, violating closed areas and seasons and using prohibited or illegal gear.
Illegal fishing occurs in the Exclusive Economic Zones of both developed and developing countries as well as on the high seas. There are large regional variations, however. Africa, particularly West Africa, is most likely the worst affected, with some countries losing up to 40 per cent of the catches made in their Exclusive Economic Zones. For example, the Environmental Justice Foundation calculates that for sub-Saharan Africa, the total value of illegal fish is approximately US$1 billion a year. Sierra Leone alone has been losing US$29 million per year.
In addition to this economic damage in poor parts of the world, illegal fishing is environmentally destructive. Illegal fishing usually targets high value stocks at the top of the food chain, such as blue fin tuna and cod. These are not easily replaced, and such fishing has an 10 impact further down the food chain. Because illegal fishing vessels discard by-catch, there is also a staggering proportion of wasted fish.
Attempts to control illegal fishing frequently involve punishing innocent fishers, who often have been trafficked or deceived into service and are youths or children. Such crews are often sent home after many months and possibly years, with the stigma of deportation, without return of earnings and with the prospect of demands by crewing agencies for repayment of initial loans and fees.
From the Caribbean and North America to Africa and Asia, there have been numerous examples of the use of fishing vessels in the drugs trade. Fishing vessels are attractive to drugs traffickers because they make it easy to camouflage such activity, including by combining drugs trading with normal fishing. This can continue onshore, with drugs landed where fish catches are processed and sold.
Poverty among small fishing communities contributes to the willingness of fishers to work on boats involved in the drugs trade. Most commonly, distant-water vessels ply the ocean routes and tranship to local inshore fishing vessels at either end. Fishers act as captains and crews, but are not generally involved in directly managing the trade, which is done from shore at both production and market locations.
Combating such activities increasingly depends on extensive international cooperation. A recent example was Operation Lionfish led by INTERPOL across Central America and the Caribbean, which in July 2013 netted nearly US$1 billion of cocaine, heroin and marijuana.
While piracy against merchant ships often makes headlines, anecdotal evidence suggests that attacks against fishing vessels are more frequent, but often remain unreported even by the victims. Fishers fear reprisals during subsequent trips or retaliation against their communities. Sometimes fishers make regular protection payments to obtain “piracy immunity”. When fishers are on attacking craft, it is usually they rather than the owners who are killed, injured or imprisoned.