CEO Note: Three levers to tackle illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing | Oceana
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March 3, 2021

CEO Note: Three levers to tackle illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing


I’m a big optimist on the matter of rebuilding fish populations. It’s achievable, and the benefits are larger than people understand. That’s why on Monday, when I spoke on a panel at The Economist magazine’s World Ocean Summit, I started off by talking about a study that was recently published in the world-renowned science journal Nature. The study showed how science-based fisheries management can rebuild collapsed fisheries and restore the health of our oceans, something Oceana has been campaigning on for two decades. My message was this: if we follow the science and manage stocks accordingly, fish come back, and can be a sustainable resource that feeds 1 billion people a healthy, nutritious meal every day, forever.

But, as I also said, realism requires we confront the challenges we face. The progress of science-based fisheries management is undermined by illegal fishing. Illegal, as well as unreported and unregulated, fishing undercuts our ability to save the oceans and feed the world and poses serious threat to the seas. It is estimated that up to 30% of the seafood caught worldwide is a product of unreported fishing.[i] Estimated loss in annual economic impact due to the diversion of fish from the legitimate trade system is $26 to $50 billion (USD).[ii] In addition, Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated (IUU) fishing depletes fish stocks, disproportionately impacts lower-income countries, and jeopardizes marine ecosystems along with food security and livelihoods of artisanal fisher communities. This is a threat that we must address, and Oceana and our many allies are campaigning to do just that.

We have three levers to fight IUU fishing. The first lever being that purchasers of seafood must insist that the fish they buy is traceable throughout the entire supply chain to demonstrate the legality of its sourcing and the integrity of the product. This is what we at Oceana call “boat to plate” traceability. A consumer should be able to easily trace the cod on their fork all the way back to the boat that pulled it out of the water and know exactly where those waters are. Oceana Board Member Ted Danson put it simply in his conversation Monday at the World Ocean Summit with The Economist’s editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes, “you need to know where the fish you’re eating is coming from, you need to know where it is caught, and if you have illegal fishing, you’re flying blind.”

While the United States is one of the world’s leaders in implementing science-based fisheries management, it now has the opportunity to do better on the issue of seafood traceability. We’re campaigning, with the help of our allies and supporters, for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to expand and implement a proposed rule under the Food Safety Modernization Act that would require traceability for a number of foods including seafood. This issue touches everyone – or at least everyone who eats. Consumers want to know that the fish they eat is safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced, and honestly labeled. In a recent poll of U.S. voters, Oceana found that 83% agree that all seafood should be traceable from the fishing boat to the dinner plate. Last month, more than 10,000 United States citizens joined Oceana in calling on the FDA to require traceability for all seafood. This is a big opportunity for action for food integrity and ocean conservation by the new Biden-Harris administration.  

Our second lever is to stop harmful government subsidies that support overfishing and degrade our oceans. These subsidies fuel large-scale industrial distant water fleets, which are notorious for exploiting fisheries near or in the Exclusive Economic Zones of smaller countries that lack the means to defend themselves. About twelve nations send their fishers all over the world, and China’s distant water fleet is the world’s largest. It is also the best financed through government subsidies, totaling $7.2 billion (USD).[iii] I was joined on my panel at the World Ocean Summit by Norman Wray, president-governor of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, whose jurisdiction recently witnessed the near limitless fishing pressure of China’s distant water fleet. In August 2020, an Oceana analysis found nearly 300 Chinese vessels aggressively fishing the waters along the edge of the Galapagos’ exclusive economic zone for more than 73,000 apparent fishing hours primarily for squid, a species essential to the health of the marine ecosystem and key prey for fish targeted by local fishers[iv]. We also documented the Chinese vessels apparently disabling their public tracking devices, providing conflicting vessel identification information, and engaging in potentially suspect transshipment practices, all of which can enable illicit activities.

Ending subsidies that fund destructive overfishing by distant water fleets is no walk in the park. Earlier this week, Stop Funding Overfishing organizers delivered a statement, signed by Oceana and 174 other organizations, to the newly elected Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, urging leaders to reach a deal to stop these subsidies. While I’m encouraged by Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s stated determination to see this through, negotiations on this topic at the WTO have gone on for more than 15 years without any results.[v] Subsidies should also be tackled in bi-lateral and regional trade agreements. Well negotiated agreements like these contain terms that allow for effective enforcement and accountability. With them timely and measurable progress toward reducing overfishing subsidies is possible.  

And finally, the third lever in our fight against IUU fishing is transparency. Many fleets can go dark – become untraceable – to hide unsavory practices, like illegal fishing. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis metaphorically wrote that “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” and to fight illegal fishing we need more sunshine.

We must make sure larger fishing vessels are publicly trackable at all times. In 2016, Oceana, in partnership with Google and SkyTruth, launched Global Fishing Watch (GFW) to increase transparency and help protect the oceans by using satellite technology. Now an independent nonprofit, GFW analyzes fishing vessels’ Automatic Identification System satellite signals to identify their location and presumed fishing effort. Global Fishing Watch then makes this near real time information available to anyone in the world to view at any time for free. GFW’s incredible technology has fueled research around the world and has helped show that global transparency, with the deterrence effect that go with it, is realistic. Forward-leaning ocean conservation countries have provided their VMS data to Global Fishing Watch, dramatically enhancing the quality of their offshore ocean monitoring. We continue to campaign for additional countries to shine a light on the dark parts of our seas.

These three levers are practical and achievable. By ending subsidies, and implementing traceability and transparency around the world, we can make legal, traceable, and trackable fishing the only acceptable standard. It’s our only option to secure a healthy ocean that, if properly managed, can feed a billion people a healthy seafood meal every day, forever.

If you would like to learn more about tools to fight IUU fishing, visit or our social media platforms as we just released a new special report on the topic.

[iv] https___usa.oceana.org_sites_default_files_galapagos_mini_report_finalupdateddoi.pdf