IUU fishing: Should we consider Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing together?

IUU fishing is illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. (FAO)
IUU fishing is illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. (FAO)

By Abigail Lynch 

IUU fishing is shorthand for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.  Does it necessarily make sense to lump all three types of fishing together?

Let’s first look at how these terms are defined.  In 2001, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) adopted an International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing.  In this document, FAO defined each type of fishing:

Illegal fishing refers to activities:

  • Conducted by national or foreign vessels in waters under the jurisdiction of a State, without the permission of that State, or in contravention of its laws and regulations;
  • Conducted by vessels flying the flag of States that are parties to a relevant regional fisheries management organization but operate in contravention of the conservation and management measures adopted by that organization and by which the States are bound, or relevant provisions of the applicable international law; or
  • In violation of national laws or international obligations, including those undertaken by cooperating States to a relevant regional fisheries management organization.

Unreported fishing refers to fishing activities:

  • Which have not been reported, or have been misreported, to the relevant national authority, in contravention of national laws and regulations; or
  • Undertaken in the area of competence of a relevant regional fisheries management organization which have not been reported or have been misreported, in contravention of the reporting procedures of that organization.

Unregulated fishing refers to fishing activities:

  • In the area of application of a relevant regional fisheries management organization that are conducted by vessels without nationality, or by those flying the flag of a State not party to that organization, or by a fishing entity, in a manner that is not consistent with or contravenes the conservation and management measures of that organization; or
  • In areas or for fish stocks in relation to which there are no applicable conservation or management measures and where such fishing activities are conducted in a manner inconsistent with State responsibilities for the conservation of living marine resources under international law.”

Without a doubt, all three types of fishing undermine efforts to conserve and sustainably manage fisheries.  But, when you consider the responsible party in each of these three cases, one quickly falls out as different.  “Which one of these is not like the others?” With illegal fishing, the fishers are in direct violation of the law by fishing when, where, or for certain species they shouldn’t be fishing.  Unreported fishing is the failure to report harvest in accordance with the law – the fishing itself is not illegal, but the fishers are still not in compliance with the law because of their failure to report their harvest.  Then, there’s unregulated fishing.  In this case, governments do not have regulations in place to manage the fishery.  Yes; some fishers do take advantage of this and operate under “flags of convenience.”  But, in other cases, fishers are just operating in a situation where a government is not capable of managing their activities.  Illegal and unreported fishing are enforcement issues.  Unregulated fishing is a governance issue.

Illegal fishing is easy to protest.  But, what about unregulated fishing? (WWF)
Illegal fishing is easy to protest. But, what about unregulated fishing? (WWF)

I argue (as others have before me – in particular, see Serdy 2011) that lumping unregulated fisheries in with illicit activities is more than merely an injustice to the unregulated fishers, it also hinders progress towards sustainable fisheries management because it masks the problem.  Unquestionably, illegal and unreported fishing are huge problems  – Agnew et al. (2009), for example, estimate global losses to illegal and unreported fishing between US$10 billion and US$23.5 billion, annually (11-26 million tonnes).  But, they are a different problem than unregulated fishing.  They require different strategies to address them.  While illegal and unreported fishing are not necessarily easier to address than unregulated fishing, they are often easier to acknowledge because there is a “bad guy,” a criminal violation.  This isn’t the case for unregulated fishing where it is simply a governing body (or lack thereof) that isn’t capable of developing and/or implementing regulations to manage fisheries.  Enforcement vs. governance.  When considered together, unregulated fishing can get lost in the shuffle with illegal and unreported fishing; we may not be devoting enough energy to address each of these unique problems appropriately.

While we can all agree that IUU fishing poses a threat to sustainable fisheries and fish conservation, can we consider that IUU fishing might not be the most suitable acronym to address these issues? Maybe, IU fishing and U fishing if we insist on using acronyms?

For a more thorough and expert examination of this issue (and the principal source for my personal thinking on this topic):

Serdy, A. 2011. Simplistic or surreptitious? Beyond the flawed concept(s) of IUU fishing. Pages 253–279 in W. W. Taylor, A. J. Lynch, and M. G. Schechter, editors. Sustainable fisheries: multi-level approaches to a global problem. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland.

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