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Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing: A threat to sustainable development



  • Fecha de recepción: 23/10/2023
  • Fecha de publicación: 29/02/2024. Visto 295 veces.
  • Resumen:

    Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is a global threat that undermines sustainable development in multiple ways. It diminishes fish stocks, damages marine ecosystems, harms coastal communities, and disrupts the seafood market, creating unfair disadvantages for responsible fishers. This article analyzes the environmental, economic, and social impacts of IUU fishing and its relationship to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It also presents current and future measures to address this critical issue.

  • Palabras clave: IUU fishing, Marine ecosystem.
  • Abstract:

    La Pesca Ilegal, No Declarada y No Reglamentada (pesca INDNR) es una amenaza global que debilita el desarrollo sostenible de diversas maneras. Reduce las poblaciones de peces, daña los ecosistemas marinos, perjudica a las comunidades costeras y altera el mercado de productos del mar, creando desventajas injustas para los pescadores honestos. Este artículo analiza las repercusiones medioambientales, económicas y sociales de la pesca INDNR y su relación con los Objetivos de Desarrollo Sostenible (ODS) de las Naciones Unidas. También entrega medidas actuales y futuras para abordar esta crítica problemática.

  • Keywords: Pesca INDNR, ecosistemas marinos.

Fishing is one of the oldest commercial activities in the world. In many places, it determines the lifestyle of people, families, and entire towns, where fishing is the principal economic activity which is recognized as the major source of food, providing employment and income to the coastal communities (FAO, 2023). Additionally, to preserve the marine environment and guarantee food provisions, fishing is normally regulated by national and international regulations, establishing fishing quotas and fishing areas, according to types of fishing vessels or marine species. However, there is a threat that is jeopardizing the ecosystem itself, marine environments, and the preservation of species known as illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. According to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)., IUU fishing is an international problem that violates fishing management agreements and other fisheries regulations, producing huge economic losses for coastal States, and represents a threat to seafood provisions and the preservation of seafood stocks towards reach long-term sustainability (FAO, 2023). Therefore, the characteristics of IUU fishing are undermining global sustainable development, which has been defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Schrijver, 2008, p.23). Sustainable development, which is addressed by the United Nations 2030 Agenda, considers 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aimed at three main pillars: environmental protection, economic growth, and social well-being, which interconnected in a harmonized way are vital for the well-being of individuals and societies. Consequently, if any measure, initiative, or activity of sustainable development lacks one of the pillars, then it is unsustainable. Thus, it is vital to identify how the threat of IUU fishing is affecting sustainable development from the environmental, economic, and social perspectives, current measures and future projections to eradicate IUU fishing and protect sustainable fishing.

IUU fishing: Environmental perspective

In the early 1980’s, after the adoption of the United Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982), the protection of marine resources became an international concern. Establishing legal governance regimes and codifying the ocean spaces’ definitions was the first step to put forward new regulations to effectively manage the sustainability of fishing. However, even though a fishing regulatory framework now exists, a considerable number of vessels are still practicing IUU fishing, principally, because of the lack of effective control over those fishing vessels. IUU fishing is illegal because it is conducted by foreign ships in national waters of different countries, without authorization; because it is, by definition, conducted by a ship whose flag State is part of a relevant convention against IUU fishing, but violates national and international regulations protecting the marine environment; and in any other situation that national and international laws are violated, including regional fisheries management organizations’ regulations. IUU fishing is classified as unreported when fishing vessels do not report their catch, fishing gains, or report fishing from different areas to relevant national authorities or regional fisheries management organizations, creating false information to the making-decision process to make fisheries sustainable. Finally, unregulated IUU fishing is conducted by ships without a flag or ships with a flag of a State which is not part of any regional fisheries management organization. Fishing is also classified as unregulated when occurs in areas with no species conservation or management agreements. To clarify different situations classified as IUU fishing, Figure 1 shows common forms of it in different ocean spaces.

As can be seen, there is a wide range of potential methods cataloged as IUU fishing, which undermine marine ecosystems, biodiversity, and surrounding environments and compromise the complex intersection of components that manage the conservation of global food stocks, making IUU fishing an unsustainable illegal activity. Moreover, there are several migratory species, which are essential food stocks that migrate over the seas to feed and reproduce, such as tunas, sharks, and swordfish (Schrijver, 2008). In many cases, those species not only play a vital role in the economy but also play a determining role in the ecosystem as a whole and thus, their overexploitation will severely impact both the marine environment and biodiversity. Another aspect to consider is that developing countries without the capacity of Monitoring, Control, and Surveillance (MCS), are the most affected by IUU fishing, compromising the local fishing industry and therefore the sustainability of seafood provision for the communities.

According to FAO (2023), global IUU fishing accounts for about 26 million tons of fish annually, which represents up to 19% of the total fishing captures. However, the illegal nature of this activity makes it impossible to estimate the actual IUU fishing volumes with precision. IUU fishing vessels often use prohibited fishing gear, causing even greater negative impacts on the environment. For example, the impacts on Endangered, Threatened and Protected Species (ETP Species), because IUU fishing vessels do not use impact-mitigating gear. They also destroy habitats using trawling apparatus, and surrounding ecosystems are impacted by the catch of unsustainable volumes of biomass without any type of measures or accompanying fauna control (FAO, 2023). Therefore, from the environmental perspective, there is an integral relationship with SDG 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development and its target 14.4, related to the regulation of overfishing, IUU fishing, and other destructive fishing practices. Consequently, environmental impacts caused by IUU fishing bring literally and figuratively uncalculated economic losses to governments, the regulated fishing industry and coastal fishing communities.

IUU fishing: Economic perspective

IUU fishing not only puts at risk the sustainability of marine ecosystems but also has far reaching financial consequences. According to FAO (2023), it is almost impossible to know the exact value of the economic impact of IUU fishing. Nevertheless, there is a speculative formula used by FAO to make an educated guess on the value of the losses resulting from IUU fishing.

TR=QxP: Where TR represents the total revenue or value of IUU fishing catch, Q is the estimated capture in tons, and P is the corresponding value per unit of volume. It is important to mention that this formula does not make any distinction between distinct species. For example, the estimated market value of 26 million tons of fish, which is the estimated volume of the annual IUU fishing capture, multiplied by USD 3500, as a standard price per ton gives an estimated total of USD 91 billion per year of economic losses.

Naturally, IUU fishing is untaxable neither does it contribute to the applicable license fees to the coastal States, so the most impacted by these adverse economic consequences are, amongst others, governments, coastal communities, small fishing villages, local supply chains, processing facilities, the regulated fishing industry and artisanal fishers. If governments were able to obtain more economic revenue from regulated fishing, they could invest in improving their MCS capacity on foreign and national fishing vessels to prevent and eradicate IUU fishing from their waters (FAO, 2023). Moreover, coastal communities and small fishing villages that depend on fish stocks are also economically affected, as well as the lucrative black market produced by IUU fishing which penetrates the supply chains (US National Intelligence Council, 2016). This situation produces risks to employment not only in the shore-based fishing industry but also in the land-based fishing industry, such as processing facilities and small fish markets (Collyns, 2022), which puts SDG 1 No Poverty in jeopardy. Since many families risk losing their primary source of income, IUU fishing invariably has a wider negative impact on the social pillar of sustainability. 

IUU fishing: Social perspective

Unsustainability related to the social pillar caused by IUU fishing are pressing concerns, and, whilst IUU fishing exists, these will continue to worsen over time. As was mentioned, economic impacts have a close relationship with social impacts. When coastal States obtain income from legal fishing activities, including IUU fishing capture volumes due to the success of mitigating strategies, governments could, within other things, improve their MSC capacities, and create a social investment policy into fishing communities, including employment, education and training. The current IUU fishing situation is jeopardizing the socioeconomic equilibrium of fishing communities and coastal States (Popescu, 2022). Moreover, “IUU fishing is disrupting the social status in fishing communities where livelihoods depend on marine resources and provoking a culture of crime and non-compliance” (Telesetsky as cited by Stefanus & Vervale, 2021, p. 586). Due to IUU fishing, small fisheries are receiving less income from regulated fishing, causing a sort of migration from legal fishing activities to illegal, since the fishing black market is occasionally more attractive (Stefanus & Vervale, 2021). 

IUU fishing is also making the achievement of SDG 8 Decent work and economic growth, less probable. The informal employment, poor, unsafe, and detrimental life conditions that can be found on board IUU fishing vessels are anathema to this goal. Fishing vessels, as is shown in Figure 2, used for IUU fishing activities are often unflagged and substandard vessels, therefore, with no nationality and consequently, international Conventions regarding safety and standard labour conditions are not applied on board, which represents an undeniable danger at sea, not only for the crew of those vessels but also for other ships navigating in the surroundings (Rosello, 2019). IUU fishing is undermining societies, fishing villages and fishers, and the safety of life at sea of illegal fishers on board illegal fishing vessels.

The fight against IUU fishing is a difficult and dangerous task. In some cases, the revenue generated by IUU fishing serves as an income source to fund other illegal activities led by organized crime groups (US National Intelligence Council, 2016). However, there is still hope as since 2001, FAO in collaboration with IMO implemented the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, which is a voluntary instrument with instructions and measures for coastal States, flag States and port States. Moreover, there is an implementation procedure published by FAO, which contains guidance documents and up-to-date reports for all the stakeholders involved to support the decision-making process. Additionally, the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA), which entered into force in 2016, plays a key role in detecting substandard vessels, through Port State Control, with the aim of preventing and deterring the use of habilitated ports for this illicit activity to block fishing black markets (FAO, 2023). Therefore, the international implementation of this Agreement leads to long-term sustainable use of marine resources and protect the environment. As a global threat, IUU fishing must be prevented with the effort of all stakeholders, that is why have a direct relationship with SDG 17 Partnership for the goals, promoting international cooperation against IUU fishing. 

It is also important to recognize that as fish stocks are decreasing due to overfishing, principally caused by IUU fishing (US National Intelligence Council, 2016), future projections indicate that IUU fishing will obviously decline throughout the years, but this has nothing to do with the effectiveness of regulation, but gradual extinction event. This harrowing prediction only highlights the need to work in collaboration with the application of the PSMA and regional controls to prevent it. Therefore, as more controlled IUU fishing, regulations and control efforts should be re-orientated to protect sustainable fishing, considering the three pillars of sustainable development.


It is impossible to match sustainable development with the existence of IUU fishing in a truly sustainable world because it undermines the marine environment and produces extremely adverse economic and social impacts on governments and coastal communities. IUU fishing is rapidly depopulating fish stocks, damaging marine biodiversity, and it is affecting migratory species in the surrounding environment, which makes the achievement of SDG 14 implausible. In addition, there are huge economic losses year by year associated, not only because of the volume of illegal fishing that is commercialized in the black market but also because governments cannot obtain any income from this activity, resulting in no investment, and therefore less funding to eradicate IUU fishing. Fish-dependent villages, coastal communities and fishers are suffering from the scourges of IUU fishing, face employment and decreasing social investment, crime increases, and the availability to commit other illicit activities. Moreover, IUU fishing is putting in danger the lives of thousands of fishers on board illegal fishing vessels, due to no accomplishment of international Conventions regarding the safety of life at sea and labour conditions, which from the social pillar is unsustainable.

Today´s efforts led by FAO in collaboration with IMO are going in the right direction. However, to prevent, deter and, finally, eradicate IUU fishing is important to encourage international collaboration. Furthermore, the application of the PSMA is fundamental to fighting against IUU fishing from the root, looking forward to a fishing industry in line with the three pillars of sustainable development.

Lista de referencias.

  1. Collyns D. (2022). Illegal fishing spurs billions in losses for developing countries, study says.
  3. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO], (n.d.), Agreement on Port State Measures.
  5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO]. (2023). Implementation of the International plan of action to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
  6. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO]. (2001). International plan of action to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
  7. Popescu, I. (2022). Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing European Parliamentary Research Service.
  8. Rosello, M., 2019, IUU Fishing as a Flag State Accountability Paradigm: Between effectiveness and legitimacy.
  9. Schrijver N. (2008). The Evolution of Sustainable Development in International Law: Inception, Meaning and Status.
  10. Stefanus A. & Vervale J.  (2021).  Fishy business: regulatory and enforcement challenges of transnational organized IUU fishing crimes.
  11. United Nations [UN], 2023, The Sustainable Development Goals Report Special Edition.
  12. US National Intelligence Council, 2016, Global Implications of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing

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