In December of last year, two boats chartered by the environmental vigilante group Sea Shepherd, the Bob Barker and the Sam Simon, embarked on an epic 110-day, 10,000-mile chase in an effort to catch the Thunder, an infamous fish-poaching trawler. After first spotting the trawler in the icy waters off of Antarctica, the two vigilante boats pursued it for months through treacherous waters, narrowly avoiding icebergs and 60-foot waves. In a desperate attempt at escape, the Thunder even charged the Bob Barker, barely avoiding a head-on crash. Four months after the Thunder was first spotted and nearly 45 miles of illegal fish-ing nets were recovered, the chase came to an end when the Thunder sunk off the West African coast, probably in an act of self-sabotage. After all the money and risk that went into the chase, the endeavor was a success, leading to the prosecution of the Thunder’s captain and crew for illegal fishing worth nearly $60 million.
As inspiring as this story is, it exposes the serious problems that exist with the enforcement of sustainable fishing practices. Most nations patrol the waters near their coastlines, but they usually disregard fish poaching in international waters. Renegade trawlers like the Thunder have learned to abuse the weaknesses in the system by constantly changing their vessel names, flying the flags of a range of different countries, unloading and refueling at sea, and turning off radio transponders to avoid identification. Luckily, there are multiple measures that governments and intergovernmental authorities can implement to close these loopholes — including increased port and coastal controls, satellite surveillance systems, and blacklisting. The two main barriers to any meaningful action are the lack of political will to cooperate on the issue and the lack of resources in poorer nations to enforce fish poaching laws. As such, the international community must spearhead and implement strict enforcement measures to support countries that lack the resources to police their own waters.
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a serious ecological problem for the health of fisheries across the globe, as well as an economic problem for law-abiding fishermen, who rely on sustainable fish populations for their livelihood. It is difficult to quantify the extent of the problem, because illegal fishing operates through the black market, but experts estimate that the annual illegal catch is equal to between 14 and 33 percent of the world’s total legal annual catch, which causes an annual revenue loss of nearly $9 billion globally. But this figure ignores additional losses that result from illegal fishing practices, which often target already depleted fish populations and use netting that indiscriminately catches young fish and other marine organisms. Overfishing in these areas causes losses that far exceed the value of the fishing black market. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization projected that global fishing production would increase by roughly $32 billion if over-fished stocks were rebuilt to achieve sustainable populations. Additionally, IUU fishing disproportionally impacts local fishermen, who are unable to compete with the ruthless efficiency of the larger illegal trawlers.
The environmental and economic evidence for addressing this issue is compelling, yet many countries lack the political motivation to address it. Some even actively maintain policies that perpetuate illegal fishing practices. Countries such as Panama, Liberia, Malta, and the Marshall Islands let foreign vessels pay fees to sail under their flags, allowing many fish poaching vessels to circumvent overfishing regulations. The Thunder used this approach to evade authorities: The boat was registered with the United Kingdom, the Faroe Islands, the Seychelles, Belize, Togo, Nigeria, and even Mongolia, a landlocked country with no ports at all. Moreover, some countries, including Panama, the Bahamas, and Liberia, register a disproportionate number of reefers, large container ships that are often used by fish poaching trawlers to process their fish without ever going to port. Other countries allow their trawlers to blatantly disregard international fishing regulations entirely. Chinese vessels, for example, illegally bring in roughly 2.5 million tons of fish annually from African fisheries with little to no recourse from Chinese authorities.
International pressure to reform fishing policies can mitigate this widespread disregard for international law and help promote sustainable fishing practices. For instance, this approach worked in the Baltic Sea, where Polish fishermen were repeatedly identified as the worst offenders of over-fishing the severely depleted cod stock. For years the Polish government did little to enforce the fishing quotas prescribed by the European Union. But in 2007, after the European Commission threatened Poland with legal action if it did not enforce the fishing quotas, the Polish government gave in and started imposing fines on fishermen caught overfishing. Now, partly as a result of Polish compliance with regulations, the cod stock in the Baltic has made a significant recovery, allowing for greater catch quotas and, therefore, better long-term economic benefits for all fishermen in the Baltic region.
Other countries may have the political will to enforce fishing regulations but lack the resources necessary to do so. The waters of the West African coast contain some of the most productive fish populations in the world, and coastal countries have come to rely on their economic output. The fishing industry significantly contributes to GDP in West African countries, making up 9.4 percent of GDP in Sierra Leone, 6 percent in Mauritania, and 4.9 percent in Senegal. Yet fish populations in this region are over-exploited, in large part because of illegal fishing activity. In Guinea-Bissau, illegal fishing produces as much output as 40 percent of the legal catch, and in Sierra Leone, it amounts to 35 percent. These countries have a strong economic motive to reduce the activity of poaching trawlers in their waters. Unsurprisingly, the past few decades have seen them make considerable efforts to do so. In 1985, Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal, and Sierra Leone formed the cooperative Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission to coordinate efforts to reduce the exploitation of their fish populations. Together, the commission members have worked to calibrate fisheries legislation, increase the training of fishing enforcement boarding officers, and coordinate maritime surveillance.
Despite the push to scale back illegal fishing in West African waters, however, the simple reality is that many of the nations in the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission do not have the resources to implement comprehensive enforcement measures. A 2007 report from the International Monitoring, Control, and Surveillance Network for Fisheries-related Activities found that the Commission’s efforts were hampered by its inability to undertake costly maritime surveillance services. The Commission countries themselves are well-aware that they lack sufficient resources; in 2001, they called upon the international community to provide assistance in combating fishery exploitation.
The good news is that the call was answered, at least by some nations. Mauritania, for example, has received French and German support in the form of a satellite-based tracking mechanism called Vessel Monitoring System (VMS). VMS provides information on boat location, heading, and speed that can then be integrated with other data and analyzed to reveal illegal fishing activities. According to a Mauritanian maritime surveillance official, VMS has almost completely solved Mauritania’s coastal surveillance issues, which encompass not only illegal fishing but also other crimes such as smuggling and pirating. In addition to technical support, the European Commission recently entered a deal with Mauritania to grant European vessels fishing rights in Mauritanian waters in exchange for payments on catches and nearly 60 million euros in annual aid to the Mauritanian government. Included in this deal are measures monitoring European catches to maintain sustainable fish populations and combat illegal fishing activity. Of the 60 million euros in aid, 4.1 million will go toward supporting Mauritanian fishing communities, which often have trouble competing with larger foreign vessels.
It’s hard to determine the extent to which this deal will actively reduce the incidence of illegal fishing, as it is only just now going into effect, and no program evaluation has been commissioned so far. Encouragingly, other outside bodies have offered their support: Interpol, for example, has offered to help nations with enforcing overfishing laws. In fact, it was Interpol that initially put out a purple notice — the equivalent of anFBI Most Wanted classification — on the Thunder for illegal fishing practices. The challenge now lies in expanding international aid to other countries that lack sufficient resources to enforce fishing regulations by improving port infrastructure, training inspection workers, installing satellite-based surveillance, and implementing other preventative measures.
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing poses a serious problem for the environment and for countries whose well-being relies on the fishing industry. Luckily, substantial global efforts involving international cooperation and support are beginning to combat this menace. And yet, vigilante work done by groups like Sea Shepherd reminds us that governments have failed to act in some areas and that flaws in the systems remain, which fish poachers regularly exploit. To fill these loopholes, coastal nations across the globe must work together to prioritize sustainable fishing policies and to support nations that lack the resources to do so. If the international community can work together to solve this issue, then perhaps illegal poachers will stop slipping through the net.