An Overview of Overfishing and IUU Fishing

I’ve asked a wide range of experts what they thought was the single greatest threat to ocean conservation. They all said overfishing. I’ve also asked many experts what they believed was the single greatest threat to shark conservation. Again, they all said overfishing. The definition of overfishing is pretty simple. The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 defines overfishing as “a rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes a fishery’s capacity to produce the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) on a continuing basis.” So what about fisheries that have not done enough research to know what the MSY is? Or what about fisheries that cheat by not reporting their landings accurately, or not reporting landings at all?


The definition of overfishing may be simple, but the solution to overfishing is anything but simple. This overview is by no means the complete story of overfishing and IUU fishing. Instead, this overview is designed to focus on some key points and to hopefully inspire someone to want to learn more about how they can help fight overfishing in an effective manner.


Overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing go hand in hand. Overfishing is part of the definition of what can be considered IUU fishing. By undermining fishery management objectives, IUU fishing can lead to the collapse of a fishery or seriously impair efforts to rebuild depleted fish stocks. Available information indicates that, for some important fisheries, IUU fishing accounts for up to 30 percent of total catches and in at least one case possibly much more. For example, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) recently indicated that at least 70,000 tons of tuna catches by large longline vessels go unreported each year in the Indian Ocean.


U.S. Government and Overfishing

Fortunately, the U. S. is considered an international leader when it comes to sustainable fisheries management. Since the U.S. imports over 90% of its seafood, NOAA is working to ensure that the high demand for imported seafood does not create incentives for illegal fishing activities.


The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act (MSRA) of 2006, which amended the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act (Moratorium Protection Act) of 1994, directs the U.S. to strengthen international fisheries management organizations and to address IUU fishing and bycatch of protected living marine resources (PLMR). The Moratorium Protection Act was further amended in 2011 by the Shark Conservation Act (SCA) to improve the conservation of sharks both at home and internationally.


The Moratorium Protection Act requires NOAA to produce a biennial Report to Congress listing nations that the U.S. has identified engaging in IUU fishing, bycatch of PLMR or unregulated shark catches in the high seas. A two-year consultation process starts once a nation is identified that involves taking necessary measures to address the issues. The consultations result in either a positive or negative certification from NOAA and are included NOAA’s next Report to Congress. A positive certification is issued if the nation provided evidence of addressing the activities previously identified. A negative certification may result in fines, denial of port access for fishing vessels of that nation, as well as potential import restrictions of seafood from that nation.


NOAA’s 2013 Report to Congress identified ten nations (Ghana, Mexico, the Republic of Korea, Spain, Columbia, Ecuador, Italy, Panama, and Venezuela and Tanzania) that engaged in IUU fishing during 2011 and/or 2012. Most notably, Mexico was the first nation identified under the Moratorium Protection Act for PLMR bycatch. Between July and August 2012, 438 loggerhead sea turtles stranded, dead, along 43 kilometers of the shoreline of Playa San Lazaro, Baja California Sur. In October 2012, the Mexican Fisheries Institute (INAPESCA) published a paper[1] on bycatch reduction trials in Baja California Sur’s gillnet fisheries. During six days of research trials, 88 loggerhead turtles were captured, indicating an extremely high bycatch rate. Considering this study, the absence of any harmful algal blooms or pollution incidents in the area as well as other evidence, the U.S. believes Baja’s gillnet fishery was the cause of the July-August 2012 sea turtle strandings. Unfortunately the number of casualties may be much larger considering the number of turtles that may have drowned due to entanglement and did not wash ashore.


NOAA’s 2011 Report to Congress identified six nations (Columbia, Ecuador, Italy, Panama, Portugal, and Venezuela) that engaged in IUU fishing during 2009 and 2010. The U.S. successfully worked with these nations to take the appropriate corrective actions resulting in positive certifications for all six nations in NOAA’s 2013 Report to Congress. These six nations took actions such as sanctioning vessels, adopting or amending laws and regulations, or improving monitoring and enforcement. Click here to learn more about what NOAA is doing to combat IUU fishing.


European Government and Overfishing

Thankfully our friends across the pond are also fed up with IUU fishing and they are doing something about it as well. After several years of investigation, in October 2012 the European Commission warned eight countries that they better start doing something about IUU fishing or they would be blacklisted. The European Commission initiated a formal dialog and proposed an action plan tailored for each country’s specific problems.


A few months later, Fiji, Togo, Sri Lanka, Panama and Vanuatu had made significant progress. In short, these five countries showed “goodwill” and were granted more time to continue addressing their weaknesses until they are reevaluated in March 2014. Unfortunately, Belize, Cambodia and Guinea have not been as cooperative. As a result on November 26, 2013 the European Commission decided to take this very seriously by proposing an EU-wide ban on fisheries imports from Belize, Cambodia and Guinea saying that they had not done enough to “stamp out” illegal fishing. The EU also warned South Korea and Ghana that they face a similar ban unless they take steps to address their problems.


The U.S. and EU are two of the top three seafood importers of the world. This comes with a huge responsibility to protect ocean health and thankfully we are working together. On September 7, 2011, former NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco and Maria Damanaki, EU Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries signed a historic statement pledging to work together to support the adoption of effective management efforts, promote tools that prevent IUU operators from benefiting economically from their illegal acivities, and to exchange information on IUU activities. In 2012, U.S. and EU officials met on two separate occasions to continue planning their joint efforts against IUU fishing and created a staff-level working group to coordinate their efforts.


So what does it mean when NOAA says they are “working with” or “consulting” other nations to strengthen international fisheries management? And what does it mean when the European Commission says that they “proposed an action plan” to address IUU? Do individual countries have the authority to tell other countries how to fish? Not necessarily, but when we work with Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) we sure do.

RFMOs and Overfishing

There are 38 regional fishery bodies (RFB) worldwide. These include 20 advisory bodies and 18 RFMOs. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines RFMOs as ‘intergovernmental fisheries organizations or arrangements, as appropriate, that have the competence to establish fisheries conservation and management measures.’ RFMOs play a critical role in the global system of fisheries management. RFMOs are the primary management tool to achieve cooperation between and among all fishing countries, including coastal States, which is imperative for the effective management of international fisheries. The essential purpose of an RFMO is to provide an effective forum for international cooperation in order to enable states to agree on conservation and management measures for those fisheries.


There are nine RFMOs that manage all the fish stocks found in a specific area, while six RFMOs focus on particular highly-migratory species, notably tuna, throughout vast geographical areas. There are also two RFMOs that have a purely advisory role, but the others have management powers to set catch and fishing effort limits, technical measures, and control obligations. Although some important gaps remain in terms of both species and area coverage, the majority of the world’s marine fish resources are now under management by one or more RFMOs This is why it’s important to get to know your RFMOs.



RFMOs that manage highly-migratory species, mainly tuna:

(*Indicates active U.S. involvement. Click name for link to website)


International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)* est. 1969

Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC)* est. 1996

Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC)* est. 2004

Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC)* est. 1950

– Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (AIDCP)* (sister organisation to IATTC)

Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT) est. 1994



RFMOs that manage fish stocks by geographical area:

North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) est. 1982

Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO)* est. 1979

North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO)* est. 1983

South-East Atlantic Fisheries Organization (SEAFO) est. 2003

– South Indian Ocean Fisheries Agreement (SIOFA) est. 2006

South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO)

Convention on Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)* est. 1982

General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) est. 1952

– Convention on the Conservation and Management of Pollock Resources in the Central Bering Sea (CCBSP) est. 1996


RFMOs that have a purely advisory status:

Western Central Atlantic Fisheries Commission (WECAFC)*

Fisheries Committee for the Eastern Central Atlantic (CECAF)*


RFMOs don’t have it easy. Experience has shown that without cooperation in ‘common pool’ resources, open to exploitation by all, the objectives of long-term sustainability and optimum utilization become extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. States that are unwilling to cooperate cannot be compelled to join regional agreements and states that are not party to regional agreements are not bound by the rules of those agreements. The Recommended Best Practices for RFMOs states that some of the existing RFMOs, particularly those whose mandates predate regional agreements, were ineffective. So what regional agreements are we talking about?



The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was introduced December 10, 1982. UNCLOS focuses on the conservation and management of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks and sets out management principles with a precautionary approach based off of the best available scientific information. UNCLOS also promotes cooperation between states in order to ensure conservation of resources both within and beyond the EEZ. In an attempt to facilitate the implementation of certain provisions of UNCLOS, the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFSA) was adopted on August 4, 1995. UNFSA entered into force on December 11, 2001, one month after the deposit of the thirteenth instrument of ratification in accordance with the agreement. Here is a detailed review of the UNFSA.


UNFSA elaborates on the fundamental principles of UNCLOS, but more importantly UNFSA designates RFMOs as the primary vehicle for cooperation between coastal and high seas fishing states. As I stated before, one of the biggest obstacles that RFMOs face is the fact that most RFMOs were established before UNFSA and UNCLOS and therefore most RFMO mandates predate these agreements. This is one of the main reasons that some top fishing nations such as China have yet to ratify UNCLOS and/or UNFSA. Here is a chart that lists nations that have or have not ratified UNCLOS and UNFSA.


1995 was a busy year for fisheries management. On October 31, 1995, more than 170 members of the FAO adopted the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF) after more than two years of planning. CCRF consists of a collection of principles, goals and elements for action. The code is voluntary rather than mandatory and is aimed at everyone working in, and involved with fisheries and aquaculture.


Despite these agreements, available information strongly suggests that, despite apparent improvement in some regional situations, the amount of IUU fishing world-wide is increasing, as IUU fishers seek to avoid compliance with stricter fishing regulations. The FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI), at its Twenty-third Session in 1999, considered the problem to be a matter of high priority. Information presented to COFI at that time indicated that IUU fishing, particularly by fishing vessels flying “flags of convenience,” was a growing threat to the achievement of sustainable fisheries. In the face of such information, COFI recommended the elaboration of an International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IPOA-IUU) and was endorsed by the Hundred and Twentieth Session of the FAO Council on June 23, 2001.


The IPOA-IUU was created under the same framework as the CCRF. The IPOA-IUU recognizes that many fisheries are managed under RFMOs and that RFMOs have a primary role to play in combating IUU fishing. The IPOA-IUU was conceived as a kind of comprehensive “toolbox” that includes a full range of tools to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing. Not all tools work in all situations. However, States should be able to find in the IPOA-IUU an appropriate tool or combination of tools to fit every circumstance and, in doing so, reduce the incidence of IUU fishing. The IPOA-IUU, while recognizing that States are only directly bound by measures adopted by RFMOs of which they are members, also reaffirms that States that are not members of RFMOs have a responsibility to ensure that their nationals and vessels do not undermine fishery conservation and management measures adopted by RFMOs.


Take-Home Message

I’m not about to try to tell folks what to do or think, but I’m willing to make some general suggestions about how you can help combat the single greatest threat to our world’s oceans. First, I would research which nations have failed to ratify UNCLOS and/or UNFSA and rethink buying seafood imported from these nations. Next, I would read more about the IPOA-IUU to better understand the tools that are available to fight IUU fishing. Next I would research the websites of various RFMOs listed above and read about suggested best practices to better understand who our allies are, how they work, and what their needs are. That should be enough to hopefully inspire a number of ways to help.



[1] Instituto Nacional de Pesca. Evaluación Biotecnológica de Artes de Pesca Alternativas en la Pesquería Ribereña del Golfo de Ulloa B.C.S. Para Evitar la Captura Incidental de Especies No Objetivo (Octubre 2012). Dirección General Adjunta de Investigación Pesquera en el Pacífico. Subdirección de Tecnología en el Pacifico Norte. México. 29 pp.

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