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H. 2001 FAO International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing: background and progress towards implementation

David J. Doulman
Fisheries Department
FAO, Rome, Italy


The international community has identified illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing to be a major impediment to the achievement of long-term sustainable fisheries as called for, inter alia, in Chapter 17 of Agenda 21,[13] the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries,[14] the UN Millennium Development Goals[15] and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation.[16] This is because the activities of IUU fishers undermine national and regional efforts to implement management measures that are designed to promote responsible fisheries. This is an especially grave situation given that FAO in 2002 estimated that some 75 percent of world fisheries are already being fully exploited, overexploited or depleted.[17]

IUU fishing is virtually a universal fishing problem that occurs in marine and inland capture fisheries. Despite common misunderstandings about IUU fishing, it is not confined to any particular group of fishers, though experience shows that IUU fishing is widely practiced in those fisheries - both within exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and on the high seas - where the prospects for apprehension are lowest and by fishers that operate vessels that are not subject to effective flag State control. This means that many countries, because of their limited means to implement effective measures in their EEZs to regulate legitimate and illegitimate fishing activities, are subject to re-occurring IUU fishing by both national and foreign fleets.

The work of some regional fishery management organizations or arrangements (RFMOs), which are the cornerstones for the promotion of international cooperation in fisheries management, report that IUU fishing in their convention areas by both member and non-member flag vessels is widespread and handicaps their efforts to rationally manage fisheries. This is critical because if RFMOs are not in a position to fulfil their mandates with respect to management, the outlook for the sustainable utilization of many of the world’s commercially important fish stocks is bleak.

The international community further recognizes that IUU fishing is symptomatic of other problems facing the fisheries sector. These problems need to be resolved in a timely manner if IUU fishing is to be prevented, deterred and eliminated. These problems include, inter alia:

There are no global data on the full extent and cost of IUU fishing. The nature of this type of fishing does not readily permit global estimation with any significant degree of confidence. However, some RFMOs are working to assess the regional extent and impacts of IUU fishing. In one case, for example, it is estimated by an RFMO that catches of one commercially-valuable species could be exceeding permitted catch levels by nearly 300 percent.

As a consequence of RFMO assessments of the scope and effects of IUU fishing, it should be possible to:

It is acknowledged that the implementation of measures by RFMOs to combat IUU fishing are only as effective as their members permit them to be because RFMOs are not supra-national entities. A failure by RFMOs to effectively address IUU fishing reflects, to some degree, a lack of political will[19] by their members to take concerted and calculated steps to control fishing vessels that engage in activities that undermine the work of RFMOs and thereby render their fisheries management efforts sub-optimal.[20]

A further serious and moral consideration relating to IUU fishing is that such fishing is contributing to food insecurity in some coastal and inland fishing communities that are heavily dependent on fish for food and revenue derived from the sale of fishing licences and from fish exports. While this is not a recent phenomenon in some regions, information available to FAO from country reports and discussions in fora such as the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) indicates that the incidence and depth of IUU fishing is increasing, sometimes at the expense of impoverished small-scale fishers.

It has also been noted by some countries that IUU fishing seriously prejudices the interests of commercial fishers who abide by their national and regional authorizations to fish.[21] This occurs because IUU fishers do not face the same constraints in terms of operating costs, catch limits, etc, nor do IUU fishers implement the same safety standards for fishing and support vessels and crews as is required by their counterparts who do not engage in IUU fishing.


FAO has been at the forefront of international efforts and action to address IUU fishing. The Rome Declaration on the Implementation of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries[22] states, inter alia, that countries would develop a global plan of action to deal effectively with all forms of IUU fishing including fishing vessels flying "flags of convenience". This seminal Declaration set the international stage for efforts to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing and provided the impetus and framework for FAO to pursue a structured suite of activities relating to the elaboration of an IPOA-IUU. From 1999 onwards, Sessions of the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) and the FAO Council have discussed and reviewed developments concerning IUU fishing, culminating in the endorsement of the IPOA-IUU by the Hundred and Twentieth Session of the FAO Council in June 2001.

Following the adoption of the Rome Declaration on Responsible Fisheries and the IPOA-IUU, growing international concern about IUU fishing led the issue to be addressed by United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Indeed, IUU fishing has been considered each year since 2000 in UNGA resolutions.[23] These resolutions have, inter alia:

Within the ambit of the UNGA, IUU fishing has also been reviewed by all sessions of the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS) since its inception in 2000. The reports of these meetings, which are forwarded annually to the UNGA for consideration, have noted, inter alia:

With a sharp focus on fisheries issues and the need to secure sustainable outcomes in the fisheries sector as promulgated at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED),[24] the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) addressed, inter alia, the scope and effects of IUU fishing. The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, which also reflects certain decisions adopted by COFI, called for States to implement the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and its related IPOAs and guidelines. Significantly, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation[25] urges that States implement by 2004 national and, where appropriate, regional plans of action to give effect to the IPOA-IUU.

Furthermore, to enhance the implementation of the IPOA-IUU and to reduce the incidence of IUU fishing and fishing fleet overcapacity, the Johannesburg Plan of Action urged States to establish effective MCS systems for fishing vessels, including by flag States and to eliminate subsidies paid to the fishing industry that contribute to IUU fishing.

At the regional level, as noted above, many RFMOs and other organizations that do not have specific fisheries management functions are directing attention to IUU fishing. In addition to keeping IUU fishing under review and heightening their Members’ awareness about the problem, some RFMOs and international organizations have discussed, made recommendations and passed resolutions on IUU fishing as a means of condemning and combating it. Some RFMOs, in their efforts to combat IUU fishing, have taken measures, inter alia, to:

The need to address IUU fishing on all fronts and in all its forms continues to be a major focus of international attention. The international community acknowledges the gravity of such fishing and its environmental, economic and social consequences.


IUU fishing flourishes primarily because many States fail to meet their obligations under international law with respect to flag State control. In a world where States exercised effective control over fishing vessels flying their flags the incidence of IUU fishing would be greatly reduced. However, States are not meeting their flag State obligations either because they are unable or unwilling to do so. This situation has necessitated that the international community look beyond conventional solutions to combat IUU fishing and adopt and implement a wider and more innovative suite of measures that are important secondary defences when flag States do not meet their international obligations. Indeed, this was one of the fundamental reasons why FAO Members opted to elaborate the IPOA-IUU.

The IPOA-IUU is a voluntary instrument concluded within the framework of the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. The IPOA-IUU is a comprehensive instrument that may be viewed as a "toolbox" whereby a State can "mix and match" or "tailor" measures contained in the IPOA to meet its particular IUU fishing needs and challenges. In a flexible way, and as appropriate, the IPOA-IUU urges that measures be taken by:

In addition, the IPOA-IUU addresses: internationally agreed market-related measures; research; the role of RFMOs in combating IUU fishing; the special requirements of developing countries; reporting on progress with the implementation of the IPOA-IUU; and the role of FAO.

In late 2002, many countries reported to FAO that IUU fishing impacts their efforts to achieve sustainable fisheries. Moreover, about one third of the FAO Membership stated that such fishing is problematic and is hampering their efforts to implement the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

In their reporting, Members advised FAO that IUU fishing occurs in both marine and freshwater capture fisheries, but that the extent and full impact of IUU fishing is not well known in all cases. In addition, Members reported on the types of IUU fishing being encountered in their fisheries. Such types of fishing include:

In their efforts to curb IUU fishing, Members have taken measures to:[28]

Forty-seven Members indicated to FAO that they had taken steps towards developing and implementing their NPOAs.[29] Twenty-three Members indicated that they would finalize their NPOAs in the near future while a further 18 Members reported that their NPOAs would be completed before the 2004 deadline.[30]

For monitoring and reporting on progress with the implementation of the IPOA-IUU, Members, RFMOs and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are invited to report to FAO every two years in the context of their reporting relating to the implementation of the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. An analysis of the information provided by respondents is important in that it:

Based on information available to FAO it is concluded that the rate at which IUU fishing NPOAs are being developed and implemented falls short of the desired pace necessary to effectively combat such fishing. Developing countries, in particular, are experiencing difficulties in complying with the implementation deadline because of a limited technical capacity and, in some cases, financial means.

In assessing progress towards the development and implementation of NPOAs to combat IUU fishing it should be noted that a period of three years, as specified in the IPOA-IUU, is a relatively limited timeframe within which to undertake the required background work, elaborate a draft NPOA, have it cleared through domestic processes and then commence implementation. It should also be recognized that since UNCED there have been a number of important international fishery instruments (including several that have been adopted in regions) that require considerable national assessment and in turn, implementation. This situation has led to "implementation overload", for both developing and developed countries. Taking a broader perspective on the implementation of all post-UNCED fishery instruments and the national burden associated with it, delays in implementation should be anticipated. Nonetheless, given the importance of IUU fishing and its effects on sustainability, every effort should be to combat such fishing as a matter of urgency.


The serious effects of IUU fishing on responsible fisheries prompted countries, in adopting the Rome Declaration on the Implementation of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, to take action to elaborate an IPOA-IUU to deal effectively with such fishing. The elaboration and implementation of NPOAs, which give effect to the IPOA-IUU, presupposes that countries have the technical and financial means to do so. The IPOA-IUU recognizes[31] the special requirements of developing countries, in particular the least development among them and small island developing States, in terms of the financial, technical and other assistance needed to meet their commitments under the IPOA-IUU and other obligations under international law.

The challenges presented by IUU fishing have generated bilateral and multilateral responses to assist developing countries enhance their capacities to address these challenges. Bilateral assistance, very often of a practical and ‘hands on’ nature, has been provided to countries in a number of key areas including, inter alia, MCS and VMS training, improving vessel boarding and inspection procedures, enhancing observer programmes, implementing catch documentation schemes and strengthening port inspection procedures. Multilateral cooperation is also growing, especially in MCS-related areas concerning the real-time sharing of information, through such initiatives as the International MCS Network. These bilateral or multilateral strategic initiatives are likely to be maintained, expanded and deepened through time as a means of enhancing national capacities in developing countries. It is anticipated that through time these initiatives will assist in closing weaker "links" in the IUU fishing chain that IUU fishers seek to exploit.

FAO targets activities in developing countries so as to build capacity and strengthen institutions in promoting long-term sustainable fisheries. Information available to FAO concerning the implementation of the IPOA-IUU indicates that many developing Members are in need of technical assistance to enhance their capacities to elaborate and implement their NPOAs.

The IPOA-IUU proposes that FAO, in cooperation with relevant international financial institutions and mechanisms (IFIs), should assist developing countries implement the IPOA-IUU. The proposed FAO activities include the:

FAO has been providing assistance to developing countries in these four areas as part of its Regular Programme and trust-fund activities. FAO has:

The IPOA-IUU further calls on FAO to:

Since the FAO Council endorsement of the IPOA-IUU, FAO has undertaken, and is undertaking, activities designed to heighten international awareness about the scope and impact of IUU fishing, its adverse impacts on sustainable fisheries and the management efforts of RFMOs and as a means of supporting initiatives to combat such fishing. These activities include the:

Recognizing the linkage between IUU fishing and fishing fleet overcapacity, FAO convened a Technical Consultation to review progress with, and promote the full implementation of, the IPOA-IUU and the International Plan of Action for the Management of Fishing Capacity.[37] The major recommendations adopted by the Technical Consultation are in Annex 1.

A further and fertile area for work that might be initiated in countries as a means of combating IUU fishing is the development of dialogue and partnerships between governments and industry. Some countries are already focussing on such partnerships to encourage industry to assist in solving IUU fishing problems. This development is highly positive and should be encouraged.

As opportunities present themselves FAO also participates in international and national meetings to disseminate information about the implementation of the IPOA-IUU and the steps that countries should take to develop NPOAs and to combat IUU fishing. This is an important means of sensitizing stakeholders about their respective roles in the implementation process, forging and bolstering partnerships and promoting transparency.


IUU fishing occurs in all marine and inland capture fisheries. It is a severe problem in many fisheries because it undermines the capacity of national administrations and RFMOs to sustainably manage fisheries. It is for this reason that the international community has given high priority to combating IUU fishing wherever it occurs and in all of its forms.

FAO has taken a leading role in the international action to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing. At the request of its Members FAO in 2001 concluded an international plan of action to address such fishing. Since then IUU fishing and the need to effectively implement the IPOA-IUU has been considered by all major fishery meetings, RFMOs, the UNGA and WSSD.

The implementation of the IPOA-IUU requires that NPOAs-IUU be elaborated and put in place. This places an additional burden on fishery administrations and RFMOs, many of which are already suffering from "implementation fatigue". Significantly, the IPOA-IUU recognizes the need to assist developing countries meet the requirements of the international plan through its provisions relating to the special requirements of developing States.

IUU fishing is not a new phenomenon. It has plagued fisheries management and deprived resources owners of revenue for decades. However, the incidence of IUU fishing is increasing as:

These trends are unlikely to change in the near future. This means that IUU fishing will continue at levels that undermine efforts to implement responsible and sustainable fisheries practices. Vigilance and closer international cooperation is needed at all levels if IUU fishing is to be prevented, deterred and eliminated as foreseen in the IPOA-IUU.

Annex 1: Major recommendations of the Technical Consultation

1. The Consultation reaffirmed the importance of the Resolution "Progress Report on Implementation of the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing" adopted last year at the FAO Conference (6/2003) and identified the following recommendations for consideration by the 26th COFI 2005 and the following FAO Ministerial Meeting on Fisheries to ensure effective and full implementation of the resolution as well as IPOA-IUU and IPOA-capacity.

2. to promote cooperation and harmonization of minimum standards among coastal States at a regional level where appropriate for sustainable management of shared fish stocks and invite FAO to explore a possible use of regional coordinators in FAO programmes for such promotion

3. to invite States, either directly, through RFMOs, through other regional or sub-regional arrangements, to develop measures to control flagging and re-flagging of fishing vessels to flag States not duly fulfilling their obligations in accordance with the relevant provisions of the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement, the 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement or additional requirements of such RFMOs or regional arrangements or duties deriving from relevant IPOAs.

4. to request States either directly, through RFMOs, through other regional or subregional arrangements, to develop measures to control and monitor transshipment of catches at sea.

5. to urge FAO and all Parties of the 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement to implement promptly the Article VI of the Agreement and all non-Parties to take actions consistent with the Article immediately

6. to request RFMOs that have not already done so to consider, as a matter of priority, the assessment of capacity and the development and implementation of capacity management schemes in conjunction with other appropriate management measures for fisheries under their purview, taking into account all relevant factors and in a manner consistent with the rights and obligations of all states under international law.

7. in parallel to implementation of paragraph 10 of the resolution, to request FAO to study and assess fishery management aspect of the "genuine link" issue as invited by UNGA Resolution 58-240 as a matter of priority, in particular to determine beneficial ownership of fishing vessels used in IUU fishing operations

8. in recognition of the range of work being undertaken by various RFMOs on the IUU fishing and over-capacity issues, call on the FAO to promote coordination on such work, to establish a database of the available information including any available list of IUU vessels identified and publicized by RFMOs and to make information on IUU fishing available through the FAO Fisheries internet site

9. to invite the FAO to integrate and analyze information and data regarding IUU fishing and fishing capacity from multiple sources, and to identify information and data gaps, in order to develop a global picture of IUU fishing and over-capacity.

10. to recommend that RFMOs consider invitation of third party expert auditors to review and provide recommendations and expert advice with respect both to the range of conservation and management measures adopted by the RFMO and to the effective implementation of these measures.

11. to encourage States to take all necessary steps to ensure that state agencies involved in the registration of fishing vessels and the authorisation of the importation and exportation of fish and fish products co-ordinate their activities with a view to identifying and closing gaps which may aid IUU fishing and the trade in fish harvested and fish products produced as a result of IUU fishing.

12. to invite COFI to make sure that the obligations in Article 48 of the IPOA-capacity and in Article 93 in the IPOA-IUU are fully complied with. To that end, it is necessary to assess the value of the national plans of action in relation to their effects on fisheries, to promote better fisheries practices and to ensure that the required reduction of fishing mortality on targeted fish stocks will be achieved in due time.

13. request States to review the sanctions against IUU fishing available under their national laws in order to ensure that such sanctions function as a sufficient deterrent to IUU fishing wherever it occurs, taking account of all relevant information including available guidance for such review.

14. to recommend that RFMOs adopt effective measures to enhance compliance by contracting parties to RFMOs, pursuant to paragraph 84 of the IPOA-IUU.

15. in conformity with paragraph 25 of the IPOA-IUU, encourage all States and all interested stakeholders including industry, fishing communities and non-governmental organizations to implement the national plans of action as soon as possible, and to actively participate, with the full support of FAO, in the international network of cooperation and coordination of the monitoring, control and surveillance of fishing activities, in accordance with resolutions 28, 28.1 and 28.2 of the IPOA-IUU.

16. invite State to collect, exchange and disclose to the extent possible under domestic law, information on the activities of international business entities such as trading companies undermining effectiveness of the IPOAs so that the concerned States and fishing entities can take appropriate cooperative actions to prevent such activities

17. to encourage all States either directly through RFMOs through other regional and subregional organizations and in conformity with Section II of the IPOA-capacity, to implement the national plans of action as soon as possible taking due account of the special requirements of developing countries including those for small-scale fisheries.

[13] Adopted in 1992 by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).
[14] Adopted in 1995 by the Twenty-eighth Session of the FAO Conference.
[15] Adopted in 2000 by the United Nations General Assembly at its Fifty-fifth Session.
[16] Adopted in 2002 by the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).
[17] FAO. 2002. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture.
[18] This point was highlighted at the Twenty-fifth Session of the Committee on Fisheries. Many countries pointed out that IUU fishing, often by displaced vessels, undermines efforts to sustainably manage fisheries at both national and regional levels.
[19] A lack of political will to take action to curb IUU fishing is a major constraint to dealing effectively with this type of fishing. Moreover, there is a tendency for some States to take refuge behind national policies and legislation as a means of avoiding or deferring commitments that are necessary to combat IUU fishing.
[20] There is a growing impatience with diplomatic approaches to IUU fishing and the members of some RFMOs are contemplating the adoption of “name and shame” policies for vessels and flags that are perpetual IUU fishing offenders.
[21] Some governments are inclining to the view that IUU fishing is no longer a “soft or administrative offence” and that such fishing should be regarded as a more serious offence. This notion is being promulgated with the view that those fishers who engage in illegal and unreported fishing should be subject to more severe sanctions than at the present time.
[22] Adopted in 1999 by the FAO Ministerial Meeting on Fisheries.
[23] UNGA resolutions A/RES/55/7 (2000); A/RES/55/8 (2000); A/RES/56/12 (2001); A/RES/57/141 (2002), and A/RES/57/142 (2002).
[24] Agenda 21 provides the principles and a programme of action for achieving sustainable development.
[25] The Plan also specifies deadlines for five fisheries issues including the development and implementation of national and regional plans of action to put into effect the IPOA for the management of fishing capacity by 2005; the establishment of representative networks of marine protected areas by 2012; and the application of the ecosystem approach to fisheries by 2010; the restoration of depleted stocks not later than 2015.
[26] In paragraph 80 of the IPOA-IUU, measures that States might adopt through RFMOs to take action to strengthen and develop innovative ways to combat IUU fishing are proposed. These measures include institutional strengthening, development of compliance measures, mandatory reporting, cooperation in the exchange of information, development and maintenance of records of fishing vessels, using trade information to monitor IUU fishing, MCS, boarding and inspection schemes, observer programmes, market-related measures, definition of circumstances in which vessels are deemed to have engaged in IUU fishing, education and public awareness programmes, development of action plans, examination of chartering arrangements, exchange of information on an annual basis among RFMOs, estimation of the extent, magnitude and character of IUU fishing in the convention area, records of vessels authorized to fish and records of vessels engaged in IUU fishing.
[27] Some RFMOs have also adopted resolutions relating to fishing by non-parties on stocks subject to management with a view to seeking their cooperation to halt their IUU fishing activities.
[28] This information is taken from written information provided to FAO in 2002 and from discussions at the Twenty-fifth Session of the Committee on Fisheries. It should be noted that this long list of measures is largely confined to a limited number of countries.
[29] As provided for in paragraphs 25 to 27 of the IPOA-IUU.
[30] This deadline is June 2004, three years after the adoption of the IPOA-IUU by the FAO Council.
[31] Part V of the IPOA-IUU.
[32] Collection of basic data on catches, fishing effort and prices provide important indicators for a wide variety of fisheries applications. In addition, more detailed data (fishing vessels, gear and operations; socio-economic data; etc.) from regularly conducted fishery surveys are an important source of fishery information of wide utility and scope.
[33] This document is designed to sensitize fishers and fishing communities to the effects of IUU fishing. FAO, on a request basis, also prepares papers for a general readership together with and inputs for FAO and non-FAO training courses concerning IUU fishing and how problems flowing from such fishing might be addressed through the implementation of the IPOA-IUU.
[34] This meeting was held in La Jolla, USA in January 2002.
[35] Held at FAO headquarters, Rome, Italy from 4 to 6 November 2002. The IMO participated in this Consultation. FAO also maintains a dialogue with IMO on a broad range of fisheries-related matters.
[36] The objectives of the Conference, convened in Miami, USA, from 23 to 25 September 2003, are (i) to raise awareness among flag States of IUU fishing problems associated with the operation of open registries for fishing vessels and (ii) identify modalities through which flag States can give effect to measures to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing.
[37] The Consultation was held at FAO headquarters, Rome, Italy in June 2004.

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