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A Global Perspective on Tackling Illegal Fishing


Malaysia is one of the six countries in the Coral Triangle region where NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement completed surveys in 2012 to assist with evaluating the risk of and capabilities to address IUU fishing within each country’s own waters. During an assessment trip in July 2011, a commercial fisherman who deals in the Live Reef, Food Fish Trade – one of the targeted IUU fishing issues in the Coral Triangle Initiative – spoke with international program analyst Ann Mooney of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement. This fisherman is a good example of commercial interests working with conservation to protect coastal resources.

Fishermen around the country might be accustomed to seeing NOAA special agents and enforcement officers out on the docks, but they might not realize that NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement also is at work internationally to protect them from the illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing that threatens their income and the sustainability of shared fishery resources.

The United States imports 91 percent of our seafood, making it a very attractive market for IUU products. 

“We can’t combat IUU fishing by focusing on only one part of the supply chain,” said Assistant Director Todd Dubois, who leads the international program for NOAA Law Enforcement. “Our approach has to be multifaceted, including the harvest, landing, and sale of IUU product. To be successful, we need close collaboration with other countries.”

Cooperative Law Enforcement Across National Borders

NOAA special agents and attorneys regularly participate with international organizations to provide enforcement expertise and legal advice on compliance issues and the development of new conservation and management measures. “The rise in illegal activities that has accompanied globalization underscores the need for cooperative law enforcement across national borders,” Dubois said.

Examples of international organizations we work with include:

“People say, ‘It’s just fish,’ but the illegal trade of wildlife products is huge,” said NOAA Special Agent Stuart Cory, who serves as vice chair of INTERPOL’s Fisheries Crime Working Group. “The global illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products drives a black market of $7-10 billion a year, making it third behind only firearms and drugs as far as illegal trafficking. Illegal fish is also a way to funnel money into other types of organized crime.”

Vessel Once Used for Illegal Fishing Now Patrols Coast


In September 2008, NOAA Special Agents James Cassin and Jeffrey Ray worked with the Mozambique Ministry of Fisheries to recover documentary and electronic evidence that bolstered the Ministry’s case against the fishing vessel Antillas Reefer, which was charged with fishing in Mozambique’s Exclusive Economic Zone. In addition to fishing in Mozambique’s waters, evidence showed that the Antillas Reefer was fishing for kitefin shark, which is illegal in that country. Total value of the catch was around $5 million U.S. dollars. Ultimately the court sided with the government and awarded the vessel to the Ministry for use as a patrol vessel. The owners had to pay a fine amounting to $3.95 million U.S. dollars. Learn more about the Antillas Reefer case

Training Other Nations to Combat Illegal Fishing

NOAA also provides boots-on-the-ground, hands-on training to developing countries to help them protect their own waters. Developing countries are most at risk because IUU fishing poses a direct threat to their food security and their socio-economic stability.

“While our goal domestically is to keep a level playing field for fishermen, part of that is making sure the product imported into our market was harvested legally in the first place,” Dubois noted.

In 2012, NOAA agents and analysts completed monitoring, control, and surveillance surveys for the six countries in the Coral Triangle­―Indonesia, the Philippine Islands, Malaysia, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Timor-Leste―to assist with evaluating the risk of and capabilities to address IUU fishing within each country’s own Economic Exclusive Zone. Because the countries also share maritime boundaries, NOAA Law Enforcement used this information to conduct a transboundary workshop for three of the six countries in January 2013.

“We approach our international work as colleagues,” said Ann Mooney, international program analyst for NOAA Law Enforcement. “Our goal is to help others by sharing what we’ve learned through our work in our own fisheries.”

NOAA agents also have worked with the Organization of Fishing and Aquaculture in Central America to provide training to Central American nations on enforcement of law requiring the use of turtle excluder devices (TEDs) and have provided training to Indonesian fisheries officials on implementation of the Port State Measures Agreement that would close ports of convenience to IUU vessels.

Making a Difference

Why does IUU fishing matter?

By ignoring conservation and management measures, IUU fishing operators often increase their catch while lowering their operating costs. As a result, their IUU products provide unfair competition for law-abiding fishermen and reduce the value of legally harvested seafood. In addition to distorting the market, IUU fishing negatively affects the sustainability of ocean resources, adversely impacts ecosystems and damages habitat.

We are seeing tangible results from our increased focus on international collaboration. In 2011, NOAA special agents seized more than 112 metric tons of Russian king crab at the Port of Seattle as a result of an investigation conducted with assistance from federal partners and the Russian government. Vessels without sufficient permits or quota harvested the king crab illegally from Russian waters.

“There has been a significant shift over the past several years. Countries no longer focus just on activity within their own waters,” Dubois said. “Now there is a broader recognition that IUU is a global problem that affects the resources and fishers of all coastal nations, and it cannot be solved by one country or a couple of countries acting independently.”