Up to 1,800 Pounds of Seafood Is Stolen From the Seas Every Second

How we can stop illegal fishing

Anthony Long is director of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project. He presented some of his work this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute co-host. This is an edited interview about his organization's efforts.

For those unfamiliar with how global fishing is regulated: What is illegal fishing? That is, how is it defined and what kinds of people are doing it?

Fisheries managers coined the term in the 1990s. The definition includes illicit actions among the suite of activities that must be considered in setting fishing quotas. In general terms, illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing includes activities that:

  • violate applicable national or international laws or policies;
  • have not been reported in areas where such reporting is required;
  • are inconsistent with relevant international laws or rules, but either the activities are not regulated or the vessels are operating outside of regulations because they are flying the flag of a state that is not a member of the relevant regional fishery management organization or is not flying any flag at all.

Like almost all theft, illegal fishing is intensely profit-driven and can involve any number of players, from independent fishers, seafood companies and vessel owners, to flag states and port states that fail to uphold their duties. Illegal fishing has persisted as a multibillion-dollar global problem in large part because regulations are patchy and the regulatory and enforcement system has been averse to change.

Legal fishing has reached a degree of industrial efficiency that many argue is unsustainable. How large a part of the conservation problem is illegal fishing? How do you measure the scope of a problem that is being hidden?

The seminal peer-reviewed study on the worldwide extent of illegal and unreported fishing concluded that it accounts for $10 billion to $23.5 billion worth of fish per year, or up to 1,800 pounds of seafood stolen from the seas every second. That range is due to the subjective nature of trying to assess a system that is not transparent. Even taking the low end of the scale, this is a problem worth addressing. Ending illegal fishing is achievable through a combination of: better enforcement of existing laws; stronger controls at ports worldwide; mandatory assignment of unique identification numbers to all large fishing vessels (similar to the VIN on an automobile); and widespread use of best-in-class technology to help authorities find, stop, and prosecute illegal fishers and to facilitate more transparency from the moment of catch until it arrives on the plate.

What "best-in-class technologies" are used to combat this problem?
Pew is working with a U.K.-based innovation center that specializes in using satellite technology to address the problem of illegal fishing. We can draw on many technologies, such as imagery from space and satellite-tracking systems and even drones. None of these, however, are silver bullets. To work best and for the best price, they have to be employed more collaboratively and in a more focused way.
You have to always think about two methodologies when it comes to tracking. On the one hand, enforcement: this is the "look-and-find" approach where you need a tool bag of systems in order to find and track those that don't want to be seen. On the other hand, the same system can provide a mechanism for the good guys to prove their good behavior and be transparent in their operations. The second option, reversing the burden on the vessels to prove good behavior rather than expending energy proving illegal activity, is the easiest and most cost-effective way of tracking activity. It also has the added value of making those that are not transparent stand out more–and therefore, it is easier to take effective action against them, whether it is a penalty or a law restricting access to the market.

Many climate scientists worry about a point where we've put so much carbon in the atmosphere that the effects are severe and irreversible. In our oceans, some species have already been fished to extinction. Are we in danger of a tipping point where fish stocks are depleted so severely that they're beyond recovery? How would you rate the ocean's health?

Our project does not work specifically on these issues, but the health of our oceans is in the limelight. One reason that I decided to leave my career in the Royal Navy was that I felt the oceans faced increasing pressure from a variety of threats. I wanted to help fix the problem. Others think that way as well. The U.S. State Department held its Ocean Summit June 16-17, bringing 80 countries together to raise awareness and set the course for solving problems. The Global Ocean Commission issued a report detailing what we all must do to help rescue our oceans from overfishing, large-scale loss of habitat and biodiversity, the lack of effective management and enforcement, and deficiencies in high-seas governance.

How is your organization combating illegal fishing?

The Pew Charitable Trusts seeks to use the best available science to influence policies for the public good.

In this case, that means:

  • urging all countries with ports to ratify the Port State Measures Agreement, a UN treaty that will strengthen and harmonize inspection protocols for foreign-flagged fishing vessels and stop illegally caught fish entering the market;
  • working to get regional fishery management organizations to require every large fishing vessel to have an International Maritime Organization number—the unique numbers mentioned above—as a precondition of fishing, because uniquely identifying the vessel is the first step in being able to conduct enforcement;
  • partnering with INTERPOL to improve cross-jurisdiction communication, monitoring, and enforcement;
  • supporting projects like Fish-i: Africa, a seven-nation effort in Southeast Africa to share information and resources to produce a monitoring and enforcement mechanism;
  • partnering with technology organizations to develop and promote systems that help fisheries authorities detect fishing with greater accuracy and cost efficiency

Is there anything the average person concerned about this issue can do? A reform measure they ought to support? A sort of fish they ought to avoid? Or is this an issue that must be solved at the state level?

Our political leaders and the agencies and authorities who carry out and enforce policies are ultimately responsible for the stewardship of the resources at sea, whether in their own waters or the global commons. That said, consumers should demand to know that their seafood was caught legally, by vessels that comply with all applicable rules, including fair-labor practices, and that the seafood is accurately labeled. They should encourage their elected representatives to support measures that will combat illegal fishing, improve the traceability for seafood from the point-of-catch to point-of-sale, and ensure sustainable fisheries.