New Oceana-Supported Research Reveals a Few Companies are to Blame for a Big Share of Crimes at Sea | Oceana

New Oceana-Supported Research Reveals a Few Companies are to Blame for a Big Share of Crimes at Sea

Study finds one-third of illegal activities at sea in global database can be traced to just 20 companies and 450 industrial vessels out of the tens of thousands of industrial vessels on the ocean

Press Release Date: March 23, 2022

Location: Washington, DC


Anna Baxter | email:
Anna Baxter

New research prepared for Oceana’s Transparent Oceans Initiative has, for the first time ever, used global data to analyze the links between illegal fishing and other maritime crimes like forced labor, drug trafficking, and money laundering, finding fishing-related crime is highly concentrated and sanctions are often inadequate. The team of researchers, led by Dr. Dyhia Belhabib of Ecotrust Canada and Nautical Crime Investigation Services, reviewed the world’s largest database of reported fishing-related offenses, finding roughly half of all illegal fishing incidents involved fishing without a permit, mostly committed by artisanal fishers; about one-third were other types of fishing violations like under-reporting catch; and 11% involved labor and human rights violations, almost all committed by industrial fishers.

The study, published today in Science Advances, reveals at least one-third of all recorded offenses, out of 6,053 listed in the database, are associated with just 20 companies and 450 industrial fishing vessels. Five of these offenders are among the top 10 companies in the world fishing in the high seas and at least 59% of offenses come from Chinese-owned vessels. “Small-scale fishers, who are often more visible to law enforcement due to their proximity to the coast, are disproportionately criminalized for fishing crimes while industrial fishers are frequently let off the hook,” says Dr. Belhabib.

“Punishments should fit both the crime and the perpetrator. Fines on small-scale fishers can be financially devastating compared to their meager income. Properly addressing violations of the industrial sector will not only help reduce the need for artisanal fishers to turn to illegal fishing, but also help address other crimes such as piracy.”

The researchers also found 320 incidents between 2000 and 2020 in which illegal fishing and human rights abuses co-occurred, nearly all of them onboard industrial fishing vessels. According to the study, such offenses commonly result in small fines, and any prison sentences are imposed on crews, not vessel owners. Some reasons for the apparent lenient punishment may be that fisheries agencies do not see it as their job to police non-fishing offenses or that immigration and labor laws often do not align, leaving these international victims of human rights abuse in a major legal gap.

The study recommends that law enforcement address the full range of offenses associated with fishing vessels, not just those in the domain of the government’s fisheries agency. Other crimes that co-occurred with illegal fishing included bribery, illegal or fraudulent use of flags, waste dumping, and illegal trans-shipment.

“Illegal fishing, estimated to be about one-quarter of all fishing, can destroy marine habitats, place increased pressure on already at-risk fish populations, threaten the livelihoods of law-abiding fishers, and undermine efforts to responsibly manage and protect the ocean,” says Oceana senior director of global policy Philip Chou. “We need stronger national and international rules that end industrial-scale illegal fishing and address fishing and related crimes together.”

Oceana and the researchers recommend tougher penalties, like sanctioning beneficial owners and IUU-listing vessels of the worst offenders from national registries, and adopting new policies that better incentivize behavior change, such as decriminalizing some artisanal fishing violations in favor of more cooperative approaches like gear buy-back programs and more community-inclusive management schemes.

To access Oceana’s fact sheet, please visit The full reports are available in Nature Human Behaviour and Science Advances. This research was prepared for Oceana’s Transparent Oceans Initiative (TOI) – an international program to uncover the offenses and abuses notorious to distant-water fishing fleets, catalyzing policy change to protect the ocean and fish-reliant communities.

Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana is rebuilding abundant and biodiverse oceans by winning science-based policies in countries that control one-third of the world’s wild fish catch. With more than 225 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and the killing of threatened species like turtles and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that 1 billion people can enjoy a healthy seafood meal, every day, forever. Together, we can save the oceans and help feed the world. Visit to learn more.