Lack of Transparency: the Achilles Heel in IUU Fishing Control


Who Fishes Far recently announced the availability of new information through their pioneering database, which represents an unprecedented achievement in affording visibility to information that is rarely accessible to the public.

The announcement, which can be accessed here, warns of gaps in the information. Amongst these, the ongoing lack of availability of a unique vessel identification number is highlighted as being of concern, despite the fact that European vessels have an authorisation number. The reason for this is that there is a recognised need for a global tool for the identification of vessels across all registries and ports. This deficiency has been of widespread concern in the sector, and has been discussed extensively in the global forum of the FAO.

IUU fishing success depends upon opacity

The absence of this vessel identification number across the spectrum of ocean-going fishing and support vessels is important, because vessels flagged not just to European member states, but to the majority of distant water fishing states, are not constrained to perpetually operate under the same flag. Owners are able to re-register vessels to other flags in pursuit of commercial or practical preferences. Through this re-registration process, the traceability of a vessel’s identity can easily be lost, and a unique vessel identifier, such as the universally acknowledged IMO number, may be the only element of permanence in what may otherwise be an unrecognisable ship.

It is clear from Interpol’s purple notices amongst other sources that a recurrent modus operandi of vessels engaged in IUU fishing operations that the masking of a vessel’s identity, nationality and history by way of frequent re-flagging is a persistent strategy adopted by IUU operators. Yet states that ostensibly subscribe to all the major international treaties on fisheries conservation and management persistently decline to make essential vessel information available and verifiable.

For instance, clear registration procedures, the identity of their vessels and specification of licence conditions is rarely accessible even though disclosing this information is in principle cost-neutral. An unfortunate recent example is the case of Thunder, a known IUU vessel whose registration and licensing status by Nigeria has never been fully disclosed.

Image Credit: Sea Shepherd Global

Image Credit: Sea Shepherd Global

Insufficient progress despite key importance of transparency

The potential and specifics of a global record of fishing and supply vessels and reefers has been repeatedly discussed by COFI, whose strategy document makes clear that a globally adopted system of vessel identification would form the lynchpin in the convergence of IUU fishing control data-sharing, and in the coordination of regional and global control regimes. This includes the much hoped for operational success of the 2009 Port State Measures Agreement, which came into force this month, and which relies for functionality on the disclosure and availability to port authorities of key data involving vessel identity and authorisations.

In addition to vessel identification numbers, the importance of minimum standards for vessel registration procedures and their public availability for vessel verification purposes cannot be overstated: vessel registration provides a mechanism for identity traceability that can easily be lost if minimum standards, such as those set out in the 2014 Voluntary Guidelines for Flag State Performance, are not followed with rigour. The accessibility of this information in order to verify vessel identity claims should be a key feature of any public vessel register, yet it is undermined by pervasive opacity.


Lack of transparency is the metaphorical Achilles heel of IUU fishing control, but it is in the power of flag, coastal and port States to ensure certain key disclosures, such as vessel identity and licensing data, are made and maintained. Given that the nature of this information is commercially non-sensitive, there seems to be little justification for refusing to disclose such data.

International legislation on IUU fishing control, from the 2001 International Plan of Action, to the IUU Regulation and the Port State Measures Agreement, has been constructed around the central role of the vessel in activities that can be classed as illegal, unreported and/or unregulated. Yet, an unidentifiable vessel is just an additional shield protecting the perpetrators.

Clearly, leadership initiatives by civil society have an important role to play, but the leverage potential of international markets should also be articulated to promote transparency. There should be little patience with current hesitancy, given that the stakes have never been higher.

IUU fishing vessel Thunder has been spotted: what next?

The IUU Fishing Blog ends the year sharing the good news that the IUU fishing vessel Thunder has been sighted and may be close to being apprehended.

An Interpol Purple Notice was issued in December 2013 in respect of the Thunder, which is flagged to Nigeria. The vessel is sought by the governments of New Zealand, Australia and Norway for various fishery related infractions as well as possible fraud.

The Sea Shepherd Vessel Bob Barker

The Sea Shepherd Vessel Bob Barker

Thunder was spotted with its fishing gear deployed by none other than the SS Bob Barker. The Sea Shepherd flagship has been deployed to hunt poachers seeking to capture a regulated and highly prized species known as toothfish or Chilean bass in the Southern Ocean. Sea Shepherd activists are paying special attention to this small fish due to the temporary withdrawal of the Japanese whaling fleet following an order by the International Court of Justice.

Members of the Coalition of Legal Thoothfish Operators (COLTO) have welcomed the news and expressed gratitude to the captain of the SS Bob Barker, American Swede Peter Hammarstedt. The coalition is also supporting a call from member company Austral to the Nigerian government to de-register Thunder. This would render the vessel stateless, and its lack of diplomatic protection would make the process of apprehension by Norway, Australia or New Zealand much more straightforward.

Whilst the Bob Barker is poised to stalk the Thunder in the dangerous waters of the Southern Ocean, news have yet to emerge on whether any coastal guard or navy vessels from the countries associated with the publication of the Purple Notice are on their way.

Not everyone has welcomed the intervention of the Sea Shepherds: The Tasmanian Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies has been critical of the organisation. Comments made to The Mercury (Australia) seem to suggest that the Institute considers that the actions of SS could potentially endanger the Thunder’s apprehension.

We certainly hope officials are on their way to apprehend the Thunder, given its known location. The IUU vessel was discovered fishing with highly destructive fishing gear in an area of the high seas regulated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

The Institute purports that being outside of the Exclusive Economic Zone of any coastal State, the activities of Thunder are ‘unregulated’ rather than ‘illegal’ and that this places them beyond the administrative jurisdiction of coastal States for its current activities. At House of Ocean we dispute this view because, whilst Nigeria is not a member of CCAMLR, it is a party to the Fish Stocks Agreement. Hence, any activities carried out by their vessels in the CCAMLR management area that breach the organisation’s conservation measures should be considered illegal. The Thunder can and should be boarded and inspected by CCAMLR States, and communications with Nigeria should be ongoing to determine its fate. Further, Norway, Australia and New Zealand could still intervene with regard to the activities that induced the publication of the Purple Notice.

Neither the vessel nor its flag State are beyond the reach of other possible measures. These could include the Thunder being black-listed in ports and prevented from selling its fish, for example. As for Nigeria, it could find itself at the receiving end of enquiries in respect of its failure to control IUU fishing by vessels flying its flag. A large number of Nigerian fishing vessels are currently authorised to export catch to the EU, so Nigeria’s interests would not seem to be aligned with those who own and operate the Thunder.

We will certainly be watching the next steps with interest but, in the meantime, may we wish you all a very prosperous New Year.

Editor’s Note, 27 Dec 2014: 

We understand assertions have been made stating that the position of the Tasmanian Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies in this matter suggests they are being tolerant of fisheries illegality – we would like to clarify that we do not support such assertions in any way. The Institute’s work against IUU fishing speaks for itself ( ). Clearly, the Institute are entitled to take a view on the specific circumstances surrounding the identification of the Thunder by SS on the basis of their expertise and experience of Australian legal process and fisheries regulation, and to communicate such views to the press as they feel appropriate in order to foster constructive debate – something we fully support.






Illegal Fishing of Swordfish Highlights Weaknesses in IUU Control Mechanisms

Illegal Fishing of Swordfish Highlights Weaknesses in IUU Control Mechanisms

Swordfish has been in the limelight this year, not less because of the recent ban handed by the EU to Sri Lanka, a swordfish exporter to European markets. The ban is likely to be implemented in early 2015 and will close the Union’s doors to a substantial volume of seafood. According to the European Commission, Sri Lankan seafood imports into the Union border 7,400 tonnes, with an approximate value of €74 Million. A significant part of this volume is swordfish.

A swift review of recent months’ media reports suggests that this ban may not be enough to significantly curb overfishing of this iconic commercial species.

In June this year, Oceana Europe revealed evidence of extensive illegal swordfish driftnetting operations in Moroccan Waters. The fish was being introduced into Europe for final consumer sale in Italy, where it is a highly prized food. The unlawful use of driftnets in Italy has been regularly highlighted by European NGO Blackfish in recent years. Drifnets have been subjected to a United Nations moratorium and are banned in Mediterranean waters by the regional regulatory body, ICCAT due to their destructive and indiscriminate nature.

Swordfish (xiphias gladius). Photo Credit: Sue Flood,

Photo Credit: Sue Flood

Eradicating the use of driftnets in the Mediterranean is proving to be a difficult task, no less because the deployment of this indiscriminate fishing art is as difficult to detect as is obtaining hard evidence of its systematic use.

Under the regime established by European Council Regulation 1005/2008 (the IUU Regulation) most seafood imports must be accompanied by a ‘catch’ certificate. This certificate has to be validated by the authorities in the country responsible for regulating the capture of the fish. However, the catch certificate does not include a declaration on the type of gear used during the fishing operations and consequently, it is not possible for European authorities to decline a landing simply on the basis of a fraudulent declaration on the certificate. A request to declare gear type on the certificate could raise the level of due diligence being exercised by fishing authorities such as Morocco, a long standing partner of the EU in the context of fisheries, and in whose waters Oceana discovered the driftnetting operation.

Also this year, the Spanish Directorate General for Fisheries raised a warning about unusually high volumes of swordfish being sold into Europe through Spanish borders, originating from Vietnamese and Indonesian fishing vessels. Having temporarily suspended Vietnamese imports, the Spanish authorities have requested the Commission’s intervention.

This event has highlighted another tear in the European illegal fishing control system, which appears to lack a mechanism to ensure collection and coordination of species-specific import data. This affects the EU’s ability to detect instances where particular species captured by third countries are imported into the EU in excess of regulatory quotas.

Countries who are members or who cooperate with Regional Fishery Management Organisations (RFMOs), the organisations who govern the fishing of swordfish and other commercial species in specific ocean regions, must declare the level of their captures. Failure to cooperate with RFMOs is classed as either “unregulated” or “unreported” fishing by the United Nation’s Fish Stocks Agreement and classed as IUU by the IUU Regulation.

Incidents like these suggest that systemic response mechanisms to under-declaration of quota to RFMOS are sluggish and patchy. Vietnam and Indonesia export substantial amounts of swordfish and other seafood products to international markets including the EU and the US. Whilst international cooperation is paramount in ensuring that minimum IUU control standards are implemented internationally, relatively straightforward improvements to our existing IUU control systems could also make a valuable contribution in increasing transparency and efficiency.


Europe and illegal fishing: Ghana responds to the threat of market closure

Ghana has been in the news following its designation by the European Union as a possible candidate for its “List of Non-Cooperating Third Countries” (the infamous list of countries who fail to tackle illegal fishing carried out by their fleets).

Along with South Korea and Curacao, Ghana was firmly shown a yellow card by the European Commission in November last year after it emerged that it had failed to identify and prevent infractions of ICCAT conservation and management measures established carried out by its tuna fleet. For the uninitiated, ICCAT is the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, and it governs the fishery of tuna and other highly migratory species in an important region of the Atlantic.

The European Commission has already cracked down on countries it believes to be lenient on illegal fishing (Belize, Cambodia and Guinea). The effect of this has been that the three countries, now classed as “Non-Cooperating”, have lost their ability to export their fish to the EU until they can demonstrate that they have cleaned up their act. Further, European fleets are no longer working in the three EEZs and the three countries have lost the corresponding licence revenues.

A red card from the European Commission could have dire consequences for Ghana. It relies heavily on European markets and European investment for the production and processing of fish and, in a country where 10% of the population relies on fisheries for work the damage could be profound.

But the West African country has reacted: it has produced a fisheries management plan and has just announced that it will be joining a 5 year programme, funded by GEF, to improve monitoring, control and compliance of its tuna fleets. The programme, endorsed by WWF, involves rolling out technology that will enable to better estimate tuna catches.

Meanwhile, in has also received public support from Japan. The Japanese government has made it clear that it will partner Ghana and will contribute towards its development, possibly hinting at the fact that, should the EU withdraw its commercial partnerships with Ghanaian fisheries, other powerful fishing nations will be prepared to fill the gap.

Original Articles:

Overfishing is Mismanagement

Overfishing does more damage to the ocean than all other human activities together

Overfishing does more damage to the ocean than all other human activities together

The Economist brings two lucid articles on an obvious and yet hidden truth: the fact that the ocean is on its metaphorical knees. If the ocean was a bank account it would be careering towards the red at a blistering pace.

Many of us who have been studying fisheries policies and governance structures for a while have known for a long time that those responsible for administering the ocean have behaved like irresponsible managers, squandering it away.

In a way, we are all responsible. I heard someone say long ago that human beings are badly wired to see the whole picture and that we rush into taking the path to short-term gain without properly considering what the consequences of our actions will mean for other people’s children. This ignorant attitude has certainly characterised human domination over the oceans. Not only have we enshrined in law that ocean space beyond the exclusive reach of coastal States is a ‘free for all’ but we have refrained from exercising the required restraint to avoid the collapse of entire fisheries, rushing in for the kill in case anyone else would beat us to it.

Rampant overfishing has caused more harm to the ocean than all other human activities put together, according to the Economist articles. As a consequence of our actions, the ocean is losing its ability to sustain life. And the legal and governance frameworks that should stop this decline are woefully inadequate to be any use. And yet, better long term fisheries management would make the industry better off by an annual margin of $50 Bn, according to the World Bank.

Can the decline be helped? The are actions we could take, if we really cared. Responsible government agencies and NGOs have called for a global register of fishing vessels, a sort of registration number that does not change when the vessel is sold or renamed. Could you imagine cars without registration plates? Ships should have them too.

The other action is tracking technology. It is all very well to have marine protected areas, but there is no way of ensuring their integrity unless it is known where fishing vessels are. The technology already exists and there are few reasons not to use it. Heard of AIS? Cheap, available to everyone and widely used. It is time to stop the excuses and start using technology to track the whereabouts of fishing vessels.

Governments should demonstrate that they are capable of tracking the whereabouts of their fishing fleets. If they are not, their ability to licence ships for fishing should be removed by an international court. Vessel masters that want to fish in international or foreign waters will then have to register with a country that is responsible enough to track their vessels proactively and stop them from getting into places where they have no right to fish.

Many have decried insurmountable obstacles to achieve rational management of the fishing industry but, with today’s technological tools, the real reason lies in a lack of global vision and in myopic greed.

Putting it bluntly, overfishing is mismanagement and everyone knows what happens to badly managed stuff – after a while, it goes bust. When it comes to the ocean, that is something we simply cannot afford.

Shark carcasses at a wholesale market

Rampant overfishing is leading to ocean degradation.

Sea Shepherd to Assist in Guatemalan Anti-Poaching Operations

In an unexpected turn of events, the Guatemalan Department of Fisheries has asked Sea Shepherd to assist in surveillance and patrol operations in its maritime waters, according to an article by Maritime Executive ( Concerned by high levels of poaching for Marlin during the winter and early spring months, the Guatemalan government will be relying on support from the SS vessel Brigitte Bardot.

It has also been reported that the Sea Shepherd, who have incorporated throughout various Latin American jurisdictions, will be rolling out an educational programme and a series of presentations on marine conservation in Guatemalan schools.

Should States be internationally accountable for illegal and excessive fishing?

The global marine fisheries industry relies on harvesting limited living resource and requires careful regulation in order to prevent over-exploitation of fish stocks, but some characteristics of the sector make regulation extremely challenging. Factors such as the dual role of the State as ocean steward and economic actor and the policy of competitive open access to high seas resources adopted by the international community have resulted in important governance weaknesses.

One of the most pernicious consequences of inadequate governance is the pervasive presence of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. IUU fishing is a major contributor to overfishing and a significant obstacle to sustainability. Its effects extend beyond causing damage to fish stocks and the marine environment: IUU fishing has also been linked to organised crime and food insecurity. It has also been recognised as intrinsically damaging to the industry itself and to the global economy at large.

The international community, aware of the need for conservation and concerned that IUU fishing may have become a chronic industry malaise, has made a sustained legislative effort to clarify how shared marine resources should be managed and protected. As part of this trend, the conservation responsibilities of nations whose fishing vessels harvest the oceans beyond the boundaries of their Exclusive Economic Zones have been reinforced and clarified. But in spite of legislative developments IUU fishing and irresponsible overexploitation continue to be rampant.

It has been argued that the sustainable expansion of international law can only be supported by a corresponding development of structures and processes of legal accountability (Jutta Brunee, 2006). In light of this assertion, legislation to define the responsibilities of fishing nations should have been developed alongside associated accountability mechanisms. Has this been observed by international legislators in the context of global fisheries?

There is an emerging debate on the extent to which flag States should be held responsible for the IUU fishing activities of vessels flying their flags and the extent of their liability (Palma, Tsameny and Edeson, 2010). Despite the nebulous nature of State accountability in International Law, it is becoming increasingly important that debate on this subject gathers pace.