Pirates, Policy, and Pollock: A Primer on the Problems and Policy Surrounding IUU Fishing

(image by Theophilos Papadopoulos

by Carolyn Iwicki

When the average American sits down to enjoy seafood—be it sushi, fish n’ chips, or the catch of the day at the local restaurant—they probably aren’t too concerned about where their meal came from, let alone who caught it and how. This consumer disconnect and lack of public investment in seafood sustainability makes business all the easier for IUU fishermen, better known as “pirate” or “black market” fishermen. IUU fishing—short for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing—is commonly described as any fishing activity that either takes place where regulations do not exist or violates existing domestic and international fisheries regulations. This illicit fishing is both economically and environmentally destructive, as the critical overharvest of wild fisheries threatens to collapse fish stocks, taking legitimate fishermen’s jobs as well. While it is hard to accurately define the size of the global IUU fish market, we do know that it’s big business.  Within the U.S. alone, it’s estimated that about 20-32 percent of imported, wild-caught seafood comes from IUU catches. This illicit catch is valued between $1.3-2.1 billion, and represents a large chuck of the $16.5 billion total U.S. seafood market.

Within the U.S., there are two main laws regulators can use to curb IUU fishing: the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) and the Lacey Act.  The Lacey Act is a historic U.S. law that makes it illegal to buy, sell, or otherwise trade any wildlife that was harvested illegally under U.S. or international law, such as illegally caught fish. Meanwhile, the MSA requires that all U.S. fisheries be sustainably managed, effectively outlawing unsustainable fishing practices. It also mandates that the U.S. identify nations suspected of unsustainable fishing. In the past few years, the U.S. has started to lead a new charge against IUU fishing, with the recent creation of a Presidential Initiative to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud at-large. The initiative, which has been significantly guided by public comment, seeks to determine which species are most “at risk” of IUU fishing, so Congress and executive agencies can draft more specific measures to conserve and protect them.

On the international scene, where high-seas IUU fishing beyond nations’ exclusive economic zones (EEZ) is a significant problem, creating consistent policy and regulation is considerably more challenging. Only the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLoS) regulates fishing beyond nations’ EEZs; even then, the UNCLoS only applies to signatory bodies who decide to adopt it as their own law. International bodies such as the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization are largely restricted to agreements such as codes of conduct, which by themselves lack the legal teeth necessary to punish and deter IUU fishing. Like the UNCLoS, such laws and agreements only gain legal standing when nations sign onto agreements and base their own laws around the agreement. The creation of such agreements doesn’t always translate into widespread action, as some nations lack the will or means to enforce their fisheries laws. In a world where prospective IUU fishermen can easily move between national waters, these inconsistent levels of fisheries enforcement between more committed and less committed nations make it relatively easy for IUU fishermen conduct their business. IUU fishing is a global policy issue, and it will take a comprehensive and concerted effort of domestic and international policy to curb this destructive practice.

Carolyn Iwicki is a Master’s candidate in Public Policy at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.

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