The scourge of illegal unreported and unregulated fishing

IUU Fishing is a global phenomenon, with much of it taking place in the developing world where fishing communities still follow traditional fishing practices, and are largely ignorant of the legal implications related to fishing.

Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, indo-Pacific, maritime security challenge, maritime environment, illegal fishing, food insecurity
IUU fishing has a direct bearing on food security with legitimate fishermen being deprived of their catch, which can lead to the collapse of local small-scale fisheries, thus making them extremely vulnerable. (Representative image)

By Commodore Anil Jai Singh

At the recent Summit meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the informal grouping comprising Australia, India, Japan and the USA, concerns about maritime security in the Indo-Pacific were flagged with special reference to the proliferation of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing. IUU Fishing is not only regarded as the single most important non-traditional transnational maritime security challenge with the UN’s Food and Agriculture organisation(FAO) estimating the economic loss caused by IUU fishing at about US $ 23 Billion annually, which corresponds to about 20% of the global catch, but is also greatly detrimental to the maritime environment and the sustenance of the marine bio-sphere.  

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IUU fishing, as the name suggests, includes illegal fishing, which in turn is unlikely to be accounted for and hence remains unreported and since it is carried out largely by fishing vessels flying flags of convenience which are under no specific national jurisdiction, remains unregulated. Each of these is therefore mutually complementary, thus making IUU fishing a much greater threat, restricted not just to the poaching of fish and implications on depleting fish stocks and food security etc., but has larger implications in spawning other challenges generated by the loss of livelihoods and disaffected coastal populations being exploited by unscrupulous elements. The scourge of piracy off Somalia and took the efforts of almost 20 navies over five years to ring under control was partly due to the loss of livelihoods from fishing, with disillusioned youth being manipulated by large crime syndicates in the absence of an effective governance framework. These young men, attracted by a few dollars and the machismo of wielding an AK-47, took to the gun in their little fishing skiffs to seek huge ransoms which went elsewhere.  

IUU fishing has a direct bearing on food security with legitimate fishermen being deprived of their catch, which can lead to the collapse of local small-scale fisheries, thus making them extremely vulnerable. This threatens livelihoods, exacerbates poverty and contributes to food insecurity. 

IUU Fishing is a global phenomenon, with much of it taking place in the developing world where fishing communities still follow traditional fishing practices, and are largely ignorant of the legal implications related to fishing. In the absence of an effective regulatory framework, corrupt practices, weak governance and capacity constraints, little attention is paid even by the state to educate or encourage them to adopt more modern practices. For many of these coastal communities, fishing is the only source of livelihood and sustenance, and therefore important for their survival.  Various global and regional initiatives to check the rapid depletion of fish due to rampant fishing and the adversarial effects of climate change on the world’s oceans is leading to a renewed effort towards creating a greater awareness of the long term implications of IUU. Keeping this in mind, the 2022 WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, which prohibits any subsidies being given to those involved in IUU fishing, has given a two-year transition period for developing and the Less Developed Economies (LDC).    

The menace of IUU fishing is no longer restricted only to coastal waters or within a sovereign EEZ but has extended to the high seas as well. This is alarming because the existing United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982, provides a governance framework for defined national jurisdictions extending upto 200 nautical miles seawards, but no such framework exists for governance of the high seas, since these are considered the ‘common heritage of mankind’ and a conscious effort has been made to keep them free in the spirit of Hugo Grotius’ ‘Mare Liberum’. The recent agreement on a High Seas Treaty, primarily meant to protect the marine environment, is a positive step towards governing and protecting the high seas and is waiting to be ratified by at least 60 countries before coming into effect. However, its impact on IUU fishing on the high seas will have to be seen. Presently, vessels indulging in IUU fishing on the high seas cannot even be boarded as these belong to a ‘flag state’ which would not allow it. 

The Indo-Pacific with its distinct maritime orientation has become the global geopolitical and geo-economic centre of gravity. This region is home to 65 % of the world’s population and generates two-thirds of the global GDP. 90% of trade to this region travels over the sea, and some of the world’s major importers of energy are located here.  It is therefore imperative that the maritime domain remains secure from the multitude of external and internal traditional, non-traditional and transnational threats, since any threat could have an impact on the rest of the world.  It is with this in mind that the Quad has flagged maritime security, including IUU fishing, as one of its concerns in pursuance of its main objective of ensuring a rules-based international order which translates into maintaining good order at sea and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

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This region, with has many underdeveloped economies, disaffected populations, governance deficits and internal strife is also affected by the increasing incidence of natural and man-made disasters caused by the worsening effects of climate change This vulnerability is further exacerbated by the existential threat to livelihoods, and is one of the reasons for the proliferation  of IUU fishing, which has now become a major environmental, economic and security concern. Besides this the major cause of concern is the dragon in the region –China, which I quick to exploit any vulnerabilities in the region to its advantage ; in the case of IUU fishing it is the lack of adequate resources amongst the smaller countries in the region, to effectively  monitor and surveillance their waters.

China is the biggest culprit of IUU fishing in the world. As per the 2021 IUU Fishing Index, which maps 152 coastal countries, China, which has already overfished in its own waters, is responsible for 85-90 % of IUU fishing activity in the Indo-Pacific region. It has the world’s largest fishing fleet with an estimated 17000 vessels capable of operating in the high seas and are used for IUU fishing. While this in itself is of concern, the Chinese employ unethical methods which cause further damage to the environment and the sensitive marine ecological system. For example, China thought nothing of fishing in the Galapagos Islands on the fringes of Ecuador’s EEZ in an area with a delicate marine biosphere under UNESCO protection  

It also shows little or no regard for sovereign concerns or sensitivities of other countries and their maritime boundaries as its fishing fleet blatantly fishes in waters extending from its neighbourhood to the Indian Ocean and beyond. Intimidation of smaller countries in the region ire with its huge maritime militia of armed fishing vessel is its preferred tactic and thinks nothing of resorting to illegal practices including the use of dark ship (with their AIS transponders switched off)  to encroach into the EEZ of other countries while the majority of the fleet remains on the outer periphery of the country’s EEZ. It has also been resorting to IUU fishing on the high seas including the Indian Ocean.

The vastness of the ocean space makes it impossible for any one country or agency to address the menace of IUU fishing, whether within one’s  own waters or on the high seas. Since IUU fishing affects all countries, whether big or small, rich or poor, cooperative surveillance and effective information sharing through an effective MDA architecture is critical to the effort. Navies, Coast Guards and other law enforcement agencies have to work closely together to combat this menace. Additionally, a concerted capacity building effort is required to enable the smaller countries in the region to also contribute significantly to this effort. Mechanisms like the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) In the Pacific whose 17 members comprise the Pacific Islands which cover an Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) equivalent to 28 percent of the world’s EEZs and account for 55 percent of global tuna production valued at US $2.5 billion and employs more than 22000 people ashore needs to get institutional support to protect this vital resource. Here too. It is fishing vessels flagged to distant-water fishing nations primarily China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines and the US that dominate these waters.

The Indo-Pacific is dotted with strategically located small island states These islands have large EEZs but lack the capacity to use this to their economic advantage. They are now facing a double whammy; on the one hand their very existence is being threatened by the effects of climate change and the rising sea water temperatures which is causing fish to migrate to the emerging warm waters due to the melting ice and acidification of the sea, while on the other, IUU fishing by state and non-state actors is affecting their livelihoods.

The problem of IUU fishing is further compounded by an inadequate legal and regulatory framework and the disparity in the laws of different countries to deal with challenges in the maritime domain.  While some countries have strict controls in place, eg., the Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement (SAFE) Act, most do not. However, in any case these laws apply only within the EEZ of the state. Countries like China are rarely deterred by these

The QUAD’s decision  to address maritime security in general with IUU fishing in particular could not have come a moment too soon as these four states have the resources to develop the requisite regional capacities to address this challenge, particularly in ensuring effective MDA and developing a well-coordinated and effective information sharing amongst the countries in the region. India’s Indian Ocean Region Information Fusion Centre (IOR-IFC) which has greatly enhanced the MDA in the Indian Ocean Region through a multitude of sources including white shipping agreements with many nations together with similar centres in Singapore and Madagascar set up an effective surveillance MDA network. This is just one example of the potential of a cooperative capacity building approach.

The ravages of climate change will continue to exert immense pressure on the world’s fisheries as a future source of sustainable nutrition for the global population.  The world cannot afford to further harm global food security with the challenge posed by IUU fishing. 

Nearer home, IUU fishing is a major concern in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.  There are vessels operating in these waters under flags of convenience, with false markings and documentation and often not switching on their AIS.

Regional cooperation can act as force multiplier through an effective surveillance and control mechanism, including better vessel monitoring systems and information sharing.

In the recent past there seems to have been a reduction in the IU tuna fishing in the pacific (from 306440 tonnes between 2010 and 2015 to 1992, 186 tonnes between 2017 and 2019 ).

 Fish is the main source of protein for about 3.3 billion people and it is estimated that more than 60 million people are involved with the fishing industry worldwide. IUU fishing is estimated to cause an economic loss of about U$ 20 bn globally.

Why is China blamed for IUU fishing?

 Countries across the world have realised the importance of the Indo-Pacific in their future economic calculus and have articulated their own Indo-Pacific strategies which are all aimed at ensuring a rules based order in the region and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. This includes the EEU, France, other Euro-centric nations like Germany and the Netherlands and most recently, South Korea and China to articulate their Indo-Pacific Strategies Canada has pledged $2.3 over the next five years, which includes $84.3 Mn towards enhanced measures against IUU fishing…

The EU too is committed towards protection of the marine environment and sustainable solution to climate change and resource depletion. It leads the UN framework for international ocean governance including the High Seas Treaty. Its “carding scheme,” which is a mechanism for checking IUU fishing in place since 2010 by banning seafood export from unrecognised sources has had some success.

With the EU now actively engaged in the Indo-Pacific with its own economic stakes in the region, it can contribute significantly towards addressing IUU fishing in tandem with the Quad and other stakeholders in the region.

Author is Indian Navy Veteran & Vice President and Head-Delhi branch Indian Maritime Foundation.

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First published on: 10-04-2023 at 18:23 IST