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Fighting Pirate Fishing—Teamwork Can Make Illegal Fisheries Walk the Plank


More Than Just a Bill on Capitol Hill: Domestic Legislation With International Impact

U.S. legislators have introduced two complementary bills on the Hill to target illegal fisheries and their products. The Pirate Fishing Elimination Act would deny port access to vessels engaged in or supporting IUU fishing, preventing their illegal catch from being offloaded and combined with legal catch destined for our marketplace. This legislation would implement the global Port State Measures Agreement that, once ratified by 25 countries, would begin to close the world’s ports to IUU vessels and become the first binding international agreement specifically combating IUU fishing. 

The International Fisheries Stewardship and Enforcement Act would increase our enforcement power against vessels and nations engaged in illegal fishing and improve monitoring of the seafood trade. Approving these bills would be a real victory in the fight against IUU fishing, making it far more difficult and costly for IUU vessels to operate and for illegal product to enter the supply chain.


e-Tracking Toothfish from the Boat Up, Shutting Illegal Harvests Down

Notorious for a history of illegal harvests and overfishing, Patagonian toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass) can now be known as a shining example of how traceability systems—combined with other measures— can effectively combat IUU fishing and ensure the sustainability of a fish stock. Working with industry, managers implemented an electronic catch documentation scheme (e-CDS), which tracks toothfish from the point of harvest throughout the supply chain. Vessel monitoring systems track the movement of toothfish fishing vessels, supplementing the information from the e-CDS. Under this system, legal operators command a higher price for their fish, given the improved consumer confidence, and illegal markets get busted—it’s harder to profit from illegal catch so there’s less incentive to engage in illegal fishing.

IUU fishing vessel Taruman, carrying 143 tons of legally harvested Patagonian toothfish (Chilean sea bass). Credit: Australian Customs Service.

Related Links

NOAA’s Role in Combating IUU Fishing
United States and European Union Share Vision 
for Sustainable World Fisheries
U.S., European Union to Strengthen Cooperation to Combat Illegal Fishing
IUU Fact Sheet
NOAA Office of Law Enforcement Strives to 
Prevent Pirate Fishing



November 1, 2012 

Pirate fishing—the term conjures up images of Captain Hook and his peg-legged, eye-patched crew catching codfish from the deck of the Jolly Roger. But pirate fishing is not something from a storybook—it is illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. And it is threatening the sustainability of our ocean ecosystems and fisheries—valuable resources that provide a vital source of protein for nearly three billion people and a livelihood for more than 540 million people around the world. Combating IUU fishing is one of NOAA Fisheries’ top priorities.

IUU Fishing Hurts Everyone

Many IUU fishing vessels currently roam the world’s oceans.  They often hide out in international waters and target developing countries with few, if any, enforcement resources to protect their coastal fisheries. These vessels fish without limits or discretion—devastating fish stocks, destroying productive habitats, and jeopardizing food security and socio-economic stability of the vulnerable communities they target. Pictured: Crew of Coast Guard Cutter Rush escorts suspected high seas drift net fishing vessel Da Cheng in North Pacific Ocean on August 14, 2012. 
Credit: U.S. Coast Guard.  

Stealing fish from legitimate fishing operations, IUU vessels undermine the sustainability of our global fisheries. Sneaking their illegal catch into the global seafood trade presents unfair market competition to legally harvested seafood—depriving legal fishermen and coastal communities of an estimated $10-23 billion of seafood products annually.

IUU vessels flout other rules as well, including food safety measures, basic safety requirements, and labor rights. Seafood from these fisheries potentially put seafood consumers’ health at risk, not to mention the well-being of the vessel’s crew, who are often forced into labor and subjected to unsafe working conditions.

United States Takes On IUU Fishing

As a global leader in sustainable fisheries and one of the largest importers of seafood in the world, the United States must ensure the seafood we import is caught legally. Keeping unsafe, illegal product out of the market protects our fishermen from unfair competition and ensures consumer confidence in the seafood supply.

From enforcement on the water and inspections at the docks to catch documentation schemes and information sharing with other countries, we’re making measurable progress toward ending IUU fishing [see sidebar]. But with seafood being the most globally-traded food commodity today, a number of challenges remain to ensuring it is safe, legal, and sustainable.

No one tool and no one group alone can eliminate IUU fishing. The seafood industry, conservation community, and government must work together, and we must continue to develop a suite of coordinated strategies and tools, including traceability throughout the supply chain and port state measures, to advance the fight against this growing global issue. 

“Policy-makers must work with industry representatives to consider innovative tools that can combat illegal fishing while delivering high-quality seafood to consumers." said Russell Smith, NOAA’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Fisheries, at a workshop on IUU fishing at the recent International Seafood Summit Exit.

We want to be confident that any seafood we eat, whether it’s caught 10 or 10,000 miles away, has been harvested legally under management measures that ensure the long-term health of the environment and the livelihoods of the people that depend upon the environment.

Rebuilding a Delicacy Through Diplomacy and Enhanced Documentation

Many people are familiar with the plight of the Atlantic bluefin tuna, 
but they might not know that fisheries for this prized sushi species are now highly regulated to allow its population to rebuild. With tremendous push from the United States, strict measures have been put in place—on the water, in port, and at the marketplace—to control harvests and ensure compliance with international rules.

 An international catch documentation program now tracks bluefin tuna from harvest through trade to combat rampant IUU fishing in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishery. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) recently decided to improve this program, upgrading to an electronic version. The electronic system should reduce errors in documentation and improve the ability to identify and address any IUU fishing that may occur in the fishery. 

The United States and other ICCAT members are working hard to help get the new system up and running, and we will participate in a test phase in the coming months. ICCAT plans to fully implement the new system during 2013 and 2014. While more work remains to allow the full rebuilding of this iconic species, much important progress has been already made.