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).
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 http://www.ticotimes.net/2014/06/11/costa-rican-coast-guard-seizes-historic-4-1-metric-tons-of-cocaine).
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.
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.
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