Unregulated Fishing: Impacts and Solutions

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

How do you regulate something as extensive and vast as the ocean? Its deep blue waters expand around the globe and contribute significantly to our life on land. The ocean provides us with a source of food, oxygen, and climate regulation, all of which contribute importantly to the global economy.

The seafood industry alone is worth an estimated $120.85 billion USD, with this number projected to continue growing as demand for animal protein increases in the developing world. In fact, 20% of the animal protein that we eat is derived from this industry. Hence, even if you are not personally an avid seafood eater, you may want to pay attention to the major implications that the market for seafood can have in the global economy.

This industry is increasingly being threatened by Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, which has damaging effects on both economic and human prosperity. When considering forms of IUU fishing, the extent of unreported fishing is often overlooked as a lesser evil to its counterparts in illegal practices such as overfishing or unregulated catch methods. Unreported fishing, however, plays a substantial role in undermining the sustainability of the fishing industry.

Unreported fishing can take on a variety of forms. In some cases, it can be an unintentional mistake on the part of fishermen who make errors in their calculations and data tracking. In others, it can be part of a malicious strategy to evade restraints on quotas or taxes. No matter the intention of the fisher, however, the harmful impacts are the same.

fishing boat at sea

As a whole, IUU fishing is estimated to result in an annual loss of around $23 billion USD for the fishing industry. When this revenue is unreported, the government loses its ability to tax the resource, thus diminishing their capacity to deliver public services. Developing countries are disproportionately affected by this loss because their citizens depend heavily on both the tax revenue and the protein source delivered by the seafood industry. Sri Lankan senior Navy officers ranked IUU fishing as the major threat to their national security due to the “combined effects of resource scarcity and the scramble for fish proteins, the pressures of globalization and environmental change, and growing populations.” All of these factors come together to significantly undermine the economic security of countries reliant on the seafood industry.

Unreported fishing also has serious implications for the capacity to effectively measure impacts on global fisheries. The UN biodiversity report found that 60% of fisheries have already reached the maximum level for sustainable fishing, with another 33% exceeding these levels. However, the impact of unreported fishing suggests that these estimates for sustainable fishing levels may be overly conservative. As a result, it is not possible for us to grasp the full extent of human impacts on the marine environment.

With inaccurate measurements, sustainably managing fisheries also becomes more difficult. One of the main goals of fishery management is to maintain output at a level consistent with the maximum sustainable yield, or the maximum amount of fish that can be exploited from a specific ecosystem without long-term depletion. Because unreported fishing undermines proper indications of initial fish stock, it threatens our ability to manage fisheries at this level.

The solution to these problems begins with increased transparency within the seafood industry. Educating fishermen about the serious impacts of mistakes in reporting could be a first step. However, a stronger regulatory framework is also necessary to crack down on the vindictive intent to avoid essential fishing rules. There should be stricter enforcement standards for the fishermen who fail to report accurate quota measurements, and investments in more advanced satellite tracking technologies should be encouraged to allow for remote and automated management of fish stocks. These techniques could allow traceability in the seafood supply chain, and are imperative to protecting the long-term sustainability of our global fisheries.

ELI’s Ocean Program hosted a workshop last week, focused primarily on management strategies particular to small-scale fisheries, many of which could also be applicable to tackling challenges associated with unreported fishing.

These changes are essential not only to the marine environment, but also the global population as a whole. We rely heavily on the services that the ocean provides for our well-being; it is time for us to stop overlooking the illegal activities that occur in its depths each day.