The fight to save our oceans

How illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing affects all of us

Earth’s oceans are a major source of the planet’s biodiversity. Unfortunately, things like illegal fishing and abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear are damaging marine ecosystems and negatively impacting all of us. ©margo1778/


With the health of our oceans at stake, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing has quickly become a monumental problem. The term “IUU fishing” is used for any fishing activities that operate outside of the law. There are many types of IUU fishing, for example, fishing without license or authorization, not accurately reporting the fish caught, fishing in prohibited areas and catching or selling prohibited species. IUU fishing happens any time fishers and their vessels do not meet the requirements established by the regional, national and international laws governing the fishing industry. 

IUU fishing not only robs the world’s oceans of 26 million tonnes of seafood annually, bringing financial losses to a staggering US$23 billion a year, but it also severely affects the livelihoods of fishers, exacerbates poverty and contributes heavily to food insecurity. 

For the first time, we have the means to end illegal fishing, thanks to the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) and other international tools. PSMA is designed to stop IUU fishing by improving port inspections of foreign fishing vessels that have been flagged as having potentially broken fishing laws. It is the first binding international agreement to specifically target IUU fishing. Almost all fish caught by foreign vessels comes through a port on their way to markets. This means that port controls, when done correctly, can be very efficient in combating illegal fishing activities. The agreement helps regulate the fishing boats coming through every port, enhances regional and international cooperation and blocks the flow of IUU-caught fish into national and international markets.

Left: Romania is one of the countries taking action to prevent illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing by keeping careful track of offshore vessels. ©FAO/Claudia Amico Right: FAO works with fisheries inspectors in the Pacific islands to build their capacity for detecting and taking action against reporting illegal fishing activities. ©FAO/Matthew Camilleri

Up to USD 23 billion worth of seafood is stolen from the sea each year, amounting to one in every five fish sold. In particular, IUU fishing adversely affects areas with less governance or surveillance capacity, especially weakening small-scale fisheries in many of the world’s most vulnerable regions. And, far too often, illegal fishing is tied to other illegal activities, such as labour and other human rights violations that have adverse effects on fish industry workers and their communities. Addressing illegal fishing contributes to the growth and empowerment of the people who rely on oceans for food and income.

Because of its devastating effects, IUU fishing concerns all of us. It poses a serious threat to the health of our oceans and damages the livelihoods and food security of those who depend on them. To put it in perspective, fisheries and aquaculture currently employ 56 million people. In addition, many more are employed in related activities, such as handling, processing and distribution. Altogether, fishing and fish farming support the livelihoods and families of some 660 to 880 million people – that’s 12 percent of the world’s population!

Fortunately, international collaboration and new technology is helping us make strides towards tracking IUU fishing activities. States’ collaboration in sharing information is one of the most efficient ways to fight IUU fishing. Through the FAO Global Record of Fishing Vessels, Refrigerated Transport Vessels and Supply Vessels, the international community is increasing transparency in the fisheries sector and enhancing the traceability of the vessels and fish products. Using satellite-collected data, coastal authorities can determine which boats are practicing illegal fishing and alert appropriate authorities. Strong policies help to ensure fishers only catch permitted species from authorized areas.

Fishing and fish farming support the livelihoods and families of about 12 percent of the world’s population. ©FAO/Ines Gonsalves

Managing fishing gear properly is also an important part of protecting our oceans. IUU fishing can be one of the causes of “ghost gear” in our oceans, as those engaging in IUU activities may illegally dump gear overboard to evade detection from authorities. They are also more likely to operate in conditions which increase the risk of accidental gear loss, for example fishing at night or in difficult sea conditions. Sadly, at least 640 000 tonnes of fishing gear is thought to be abandoned, lost or discarded in the oceans every year, causing a significant threat to the marine environment and to marine resources, as this gear continues “fishing” even after it has been abandoned.

If we want to continue living off the ocean, we need a sustainable approach to fishing and measures in place to prevent IUU fishing. For the first time ever, we have the international tools to truly reduce the damages inflicted on some of our planet’s most precious resources. Together, with the will do to so, we can put an end to illegal fishing and work together to protect, manage and conserve our oceans and our future.

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14. Life below water