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 Control: Why Europe Needs a Common Software Platform

Council Regulation 1005 / 2008 (the IUU Regulation) is a European Union (EU) legislative tool designed to reinforce and support pre-existing normative measures established by the international community to control illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.


Transhipment, Central Pacific (Image Credit:

The potential of the IUU regulation to disincentivise IUU fishing practices gravitates around

  • the indisputable power of the EU as port and market State, and
  • on the ability of the EU to implement the IUU regulation in an even and watertight manner.

These are in fact like two sides of the same coin, since loopholes in implementation leading to IUU importation windows can de facto give rise to different standards within the common trade boundary and make coordination impossible.

A recent report offers an insight into progress made in implementing the Regulation, which came into force on the 1st of January 2010.[1] The report offers a useful overview of the different degrees of investment, reorganisation and resource reallocation in each of the Member States pursuant to the requirements of the IUU Regulation.

According to the authors, the catch certification system imposed by the Regulation has placed a heavy administrative burden on Member States. Implementation has been uneven and differences in approach cannot always be attributed to differences in patterns such as seafood trade volume, financial resilience or pre-existing know-how: Whilst large importers such as Denmark and Spain have developed interactive IU tools, others (including some with considerable importation volumes) have not done so. The same is true of intelligence data gathering processes.

For example, highly sophisticated IUU tracking software and data capture systems in Spain have not been replicated (and are not supported) in other Member States. This unevenness in the implementation of the Regulation leads to inefficiencies, penalises better implementation and causes potential diversions of legitimate trade.

Increased data and know-how sharing can address other weaknesses of the IUU Regulation such as the inability of the imports system to deter the duplication of catch certificates during processing operations in 3rd countries.[2] Increased knowledge and sharing of processing methodologies and conversion data could help address this issue.

As no common IT platform exists with the capability to cross-check import volumes, sources, fishing arts, time of capture and composition, States are rendered powerless to flag suspected IUU imports in a timely fashion.

This problem became manifest earlier this year when the Spanish government decided to suspend the importation of Vietnamese swordfish over IUU concerns.[3] According to Madrid sources, an audit identified a volume of 502 metric tonnes (mt) of swordfish captured in 2012 by Vietnamese vessels (according to catch certificate data) being imported into Spain despite Vietnam having declared to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries total capture volumes of only 372 mt for that time period. Vietnam exports swordfish to other European countries, but the capture declaration shortfall had not been identified in any other Member States.

Swordfish (xiphias gladius). Image Credit:

Swordfish (xiphias gladius). Image Credit:

If this is alarming, the potential discrepancy between the volumes of West & Central Pacific swordfish declared for 2012 and those actually captured is even more so.

A common software audit platform would enable European Fisheries authorities to identify IUU fishing importation trends as well as to ascertain species under-declaration volumes – such IUU trade-flows could then be used as solid, objective data upon which the Commission could identify third countries for potential inclusion in the EU non-cooperating third country list.

Perhaps this could even be integrated with the public EU alert system once it is operational, so that awareness of IUU fishing trade flows and vessel data and activity could be integrated, shared and uniformly acted upon.


[1] To access the full MRAG report, click here:

[2] This weakness was also highlighted in a 2013 report published in April by Sasama and FMP Consulting. To access, click here


Why Addressing Illegal Fishing Could Help Combat Piracy

Large fishing vessel operating in the South Pacific (Credit:

Large fishing vessel operating in the South Pacific (Credit:

There are many factors that may compromise fish abundance. Some, like the effects of raising temperature, acidification, algal blooms or changing currents can be difficult to predict and act upon. But illegal fishing is one cause of stock depletion that can be addressed and controlled.

Our grossly oversized global fishing fleets are engaged in a fierce effort to capture their share of a decreasing volume of fish stocks. This level of competition, plus a lack of effective fishing vessel controls encourage illegal fishing, organised transnational fisheries crime and cross-over criminal activities.[1]

Like other types of unlawful maritime activity, illegal fishing takes place with more frequency and intensity in coastal maritime regions that governments are less able to monitor, access and control. In these areas, legitimate economic activities have little official protection against the threat of abuse and crime.

Large industrial vessels can illegally harvest vast quantities of fish that subsistence fisherfolk in vulnerable areas depend on. Local official corruption frequently results in the illegal operators being protected and encouraged to act again. Given the efficiency of modern fishing vessels, protracted predatory incursions into the traditional fishing grounds of others may cause enduring fish depletion.[2]

The collapse of fish stocks and ensuing marine environmental degradation are good reasons to put illegal fishing control high on governments agendas. However, recent research by Markus Ludwig and Matthias Fluckiger, of the University of Basel, has highlighted an additional, compelling reason why illegal fishing should be stopped: Piracy.

Photo Credit: Fara Abdi Warsameh, Associated Press

Photo Credit: Fara Abdi Warsameh, Associated Press

Narratives linking foreign illegal fishing as a driver for piracy are not new (see, for example, the work of Bueger on Somali piracy as a form of fisheries vigilantism in Somalia).[3]

However, the Basel University study is novel, taking a wide snapshot of data from 109 coastal countries on the strength of an original, objective methodology to draw its conclusion: That a significant decrease in fish catches can encourage piracy in fishing communities.

The study found that a 1% increase in fish catches can result in a decrease in piracy activity by 1%. The researchers point out that detected increases in piracy activity are likely to be a reaction to the temporary lack in available legitimate income opportunities, rather than a willingness to engage in lifelong criminal careers.

According to the study, the effect of negative fishery productivity changes can be far-reaching, given the detrimental effect that piracy can have on maritime economic activities like transport and other trade.

The logical conclusion is that combatting illegal fishing and prioritising policy measures to discourage it including the prosecution of those involved in fisheries illegality and crime may also be seen as tool to reducing incentives for piracy.

For access to the paper by Ludwig and Fluckiger, see .

[1] For more information on this topic, see Interpol’s Project Scale .

[2] For a recently reported example, see the case of the Fiji tuna fisheries .

[3] .


European Policy on Illegal Fishing: Emergence of an International Trend?

Google Earth image featuring illegal fishing in European waters

Google Earth image featuring illegal fishing in European waters

Editor’s Note: This blog post was first published on on the 3rd of July 2014.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Union (EU) have singled out illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing as one of the main factors contributing to fishery depletion and a key obstacle to achieving sustainability.[1]

IUU fishing and overfishing have already affected the food security of vulnerable populations on land.[2]

At a time when fish has a growing importance in feeding the world, against a backdrop of our rapidly increasing human population, the environmental impacts of IUU fishing are a food security time bomb. This is made worse by the fact that pollution and climate change may also be undermining the ocean’s ability to produce food.

IUU fishing refers to fishing or fishing support activities performed in breach of fisheries management or conservation laws in national or international waters. It is a persistent phenomenon that thrives due to complex interactions.

IUU fishing is a complex problem, symptomatic of underlying factors that can also contribute to insecurity. Examples include a lack of distributive justice in resource access opportunities, inadequate and/or fragile legal and institutional frameworks, an absence of integrated monitoring, control and surveillance mechanisms and poor observance of the rule of law in maritime spaces.

For policies against IUU fishing to be successful, difficult problems such as the lack of governance accountability or the success of illegal global markets in wildlife and natural resources must be tackled.[3] The EU, current leader in the fight against IUU fishing, has developed a trade policy to address some of these issues.

In January 2010 the EU started to enforce a comprehensive system of port and market controls. By way of a pan-European law (Council Regulation 1005/2008 “the IUU Regulation”), the EU has devised a WTO-compatible methodology for detecting IUU fishing trade flows as well as identifying States that do not address the illegal fishing activities of their fleets.[4]

By engaging exporting States in a certification system that guarantees fish capture legality, the European Commission is able to identify exporting countries that allow IUU fishing trade flows to reach Europe. The Commission deals with this by working with such countries in the first instance, under a warning that failure to improve IUU fishing compliance controls may result in trade restrictions.

To date, the Commission has formally warned several countries, namely Panama, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Togo, Vanuatu, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Korea and Ghana. The European Council, following the Commission’s recommendation, has banned seafood imports from Guinea, Belize and Cambodia on IUU fishing concerns.[5]

The IUU Regulation also enables European governments to use port tools in the fight against IUU fishing. For example, it establishes a system of notifications and inspections for fishing vessels and refrigerated seafood cargo vessels. It has also established the foundations for the creation of an EU illegal vessel black list. Vessels that feature in this list are not able to access European ports for commercial purposes.

The fact that combatting IUU fishing is considered a priority in European policy is also exemplified by the recent publication of the Commission’s External Action Service ‘s Security Strategy for the Gulf of Guinea.[6] IUU fishing has been integrated in this document as a priority due to its impact on food security as well as its links with transnational organised crime.[7]

This is a policy trend with international echoes. It is unlikely to be coincidental that the African Union’s new strategy has this year been expanded to include IUU fishing. Further, in the United States, President Obama has recently announced the creation of a comprehensive framework to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud.[8]

There have also been international developments, with the UN Fisheries Committee (COFI) formally endorsing the Guidelines for Flag State Performance. This voluntary instrument sets out a common minimum due diligence standard for combatting IUU fishing. COFI has also assessed the ratification status of the Port State Measures Agreement, an agreement widely hailed as a vital legislative tool to prevent illegally obtained seafood from entering the ports of signatory nations.

IUU fishing is a global problem that requires the collective, sustained effort of governments as well as industry and civil society. Despite the challenges, the above policy developments demonstrate that there is a deepening understanding of IUU fishing and a growing will to address it.

[1] The IUU strategy of the European Union is set out in the DG Mare website. For more information, please see

[2] See, for example, the Madagascar food security study carried out by Le Manach et al in 2012 concerning unreported fishing and stock decline.
[8] Full press release:

Illegal Fishing and Maritime Security

Why IUU Fishing is a Security Concern

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has singled out illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing as one of the main factors contributing to fishery depletion and a key obstacle to achieving sustainability. IUU fishing and overfishing have already affected the food security of vulnerable populations on land (see, for example, the Madagascar food security study carried out by Le Manach et al in 2012 concerning unreported fishing and stock decline, or the work of EJF in Sierra Leone).

Photo Credit: Richard White, Lindblad Expeditions

At a time when fish has a growing importance in feeding the world (FAO, 2014) and against a backdrop of a rapidly increasing human population, the environmental impacts of IUU fishing and legal overfishing are a food security time bomb. In addition, pollution and climate change may also be undermining the ocean’s ability to produce food.

In addition to human security concerns, industrial scale IUU fishing is frequently linked to instances of maritime crime.  Tax evasion, corruption and document forgery can form an integral part of IUU fishing operations. Further, transnational organised crime such as human trafficking can be facilitated by the lack of coordinated surveillance under which fishing vessels routinely operate (UNODC, 2011).

IUU fishing may feed off land insecurity issues that have the effect of impoverishing communities to the point of forcing displacement. Uprooted individuals are routinely trafficked into forced labour, slavery and torture on board of fishing vessels (for real life slavery examples see the case of the Samudera Pasific 8 and the Merkat Bejala here).

UNODC experts have also found substantial evidence of extensive utilisation of fishing vessels for drug trafficking. Research suggest that significant volumes of cocaine and heroin have been seized by coast guards, police and port authorities in Africa, South America and Europe that were being trafficked on board of fishing vessels. Traffickers operated successfully whilst performing fake as well as real fishing voyages (see, for example

Illicit activities carried out by fishing vessels at sea are frequently “invisible”. Fishing vessels are exempt from the requirement of having AIS satellite trackers on board and many are not required to have working transponders (Vessel Monitoring Systems, or VMS) on board either.

Crime can be difficult to detect at sea.

Crime is difficult to detect at sea.

The result is that fishing vessel operations at sea are seldom detectable by flag and coastal States. It is not uncommon for fisheries authorities to be unaware of transhipments carried out by the distant water fishing vessels they are responsible for overseeing (i.e. those on their registers or, in the case of coastal States, operating in their waters).

Although knowingly invisible, those who operate IUU fishing vessels seldom work blindly. As the annexed Interpol notice shows, some IUU vessels feature high masts fitted with radars so that the master can be aware of other vessels present in the vicinity.

In addition, unlike merchant ships, most fishing vessels can currently operate without a permanent International Maritime Organisation (IMO) number that can identify them when they change name, flag or owner. Although the IMO has recently removed the identification number fishing vessel exemption, States have generally continued to permit their fishing fleets to operate without it. Changing a fishing vessel’s name (or even its appearance) is easy, straightforward and is a common practice of operators that seek to circumvent their legal obligations.

IUU fishing is symptomatic of underlying insecurity factors. Examples include a lack of distributive justice in resource access opportunities (Molenaar, 2011), inadequate and/or fragile legal and institutional frameworks, an absence of integrated monitoring, control and surveillance mechanisms and the degradation of the observance of the rule of law in maritime spaces (Gallic, 2008).

Whilst the participation of coast guards and navies is key, IUU fishing cannot be addressed solely by tackling individual vessels and their crews. Successful policies must ensure that national laws empower government agencies so that perpetrators and the financial and institutional powers behind them can be dealt with appropriately.

Difficult issues such as the lack of accountability of flag States and the prevalence of toxic economic drivers must be confronted on an international scale (for more information concerning the need for accountability in ocean governance, see the work of the Global Ocean Commission here).


FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations). (2014). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture.

EJF (Environmental Justice Foundation). (2013). Keeping Illegal Fish out of Europe: Ensuring Success for the IUU Regulation.

Le Gallic, B. (2008). The use of trade measures against illicit fishing: Economic and legal considerations. Ecological Economics, 64(4), 858-866.

Le Manach, F., Gough, C., Harris, A., Humber, F., Harper, S., & Zeller, D. (2012). Unreported fishing, hungry people and political turmoil: the recipe for a food security crisis in Madagascar?. Marine Policy, 36(1), 218-225.

Molenaar, E. J. (2011). Non-participation in the Fish Stocks Agreement: status and reasons. The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, 26(2), 195-234.

UNODC. (2011). Transnational Organized Crime in the Fishing Industry. United Nations, Vienna, 2011.


What is IUU Fishing?

Post published by the House of Ocean on the 24th June 2014 on 

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a major global fisheries problem. It has undesirable effects on fish stock survival, the marine environment and on human populations. 

Illegal Trawling in the Canary Islands (Google Earth)

Illegal Trawling in the Canary Islands (Google Earth)

IUU fishing results from the failure of States to monitor the fishing activity of their vessels and to enforce laws and regulations. Because of its furtive nature, IUU fishing undermines measures to manage fisheries sustainably, directly affecting law-abiding fisheries actors that compete for the same stock whilst bearing more of the regulatory and financial burden.

A cause of food and work insecurity in vulnerable coastal nations, IUU fishing also distorts competition as fishing operators who avoid compliance with laws and regulations gain competitive advantage. It reduces fishing opportunities for law-abiding operators, putting lawful fisheries at risk.

IUU fishing has been linked to crime at sea, including the trafficking of human beings, protected wildlife, weapons and drugs.

Typical IUU fishing behaviours include fishing without a valid licence, not recording or communicating catch data, fishing in restricted areas, targeting unauthorised species, using banned gear, falsifying or concealing the vessel’s identity or itinerary, obstructing the work of inspectors or enforcers, targeting undersized fish, engaging in unauthorised transhipments, participating in fishing or fisheries support activities with vessels in an IUU black list or  operating in breach of the conservation and management measures of Regional Fisheries Management Organisations.

The European Commission has judged the situation to be sufficiently serious as to put in place systems whereby States that do not put measures in place to address IUU fishing are identified. The European Union has now formally warned Vanuatu, Fiji, Panama, Sri Lanka, Togo, Korea, Ghana, Curacao, Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. Upon the Commission’s recommendation, The European Council took the decision earlier this year to ban seafood imports from Guinea, Belize and Cambodia, who are considered by the EU to be condoning IUU fishing.

The furtive nature of IUU fishing means that its true scale is difficult to calculate, though a 2009 study by Agnew D.J. and others suggests annual costs of between US $ 10 and 23.5 Billion. Around one-fifth of global marine captures is thought to be illegal in origin.