A Journalist's Guide to Reporting on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing

a fisher holding a big fish in the dark

A Journalist's Guide to Reporting on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing

Ecuadorian authorities seized a Chinese fishing vessel suspected of illegal activity near the Galapagos in 2017 and found 300 tons of fish onboard, mostly protected shark species. Sri Lanka and India have been at odds for many years over illegal fishing in the Palk Strait, with Sri Lankan authorities seizing 100 Indian trawlers in 2021 and regularly detaining crew for illegal activities. And, in a first-of-its-kind, massive collaboration effort between a dozen countries, nonprofits and Interpol, an infamous illegal fishing vessel was finally captured in 2018 by Indonesian authorities after a two-year hunt, for poaching several hundred tons of endangered species. 

These three cases, and the hundreds more occurring every year, demonstrate how fisheries – and how we regulate them – are an increasingly important story. The industry has a significant global importance: FAO found in a 2020 report that fisheries employed almost 39 million people and generated more than US$164 billion in exports in 2018. Yet despite that, more than a third of fish stocks are at biologically unsustainable levels, meaning they may be at risk of disappearing entirely. But the report offers cause for hope, too: Intensively managed fisheries, those with clear regulations and enforcement, have seen their fish stocks bounce back to sustainable levels. 

Still, overfishing remains rampant, and its drivers are many and complex. One of them in particular – illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing – has been and will continue to be a major source of discussion at the international level. In their FAQ on IUU Fishing, the Pew Charitable Trusts cites a landmark study which estimates that illegal and unreported fishing accounts for 20% of the global seafood catch and costs the economy up to US$23 billion annually. It also has a large impact on marine life, fishers’ livelihoods and labor rights in coastal communities around the world.  

To assist journalists in covering this hot topic, EJN hosted a series of webinars exploring IUU fishing in Ecuador and other Andean countries in South America; the fishing industry and impact of IUU fishing in Japanese waters; the global context of fisheries subsidies and the emerging role of artificial intelligence in countering oceanic crime.  

This tipsheet uses these webinars as a starting point and goes beyond, presenting a new and in-depth EJN resource for journalists. For those looking to start reporting on ocean issues, or experienced journalists looking for new ideas, keep reading to learn the basics of IUU fishing and how you can start reporting on these issues in your region. 

Starting at the beginning: What is IUU fishing? 

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is often used as a single phrase, but the fishing activities that are counted as IUU are extremely diverse. And although IUU fishing is undesirable, it’s not necessarily unsustainable or dangerous for marine ecosystems and it’s also not necessarily morally wrong. These nuances can be challenging, so let’s dive into what each component of IUU fishing actually means. 

a graphic defining the three areas of IUU fishing

Illegal fishing 

Mauricio Castrejon, a specialist in artisanal fisheries and marine protected areas based in Ecuador, spoke at our webinar on illegal fishing in Andean countries and explained exactly what makes some fishing illegal: “Fishing is classified as illegal when it isn’t authorized, it is done against conservation and management measures or it breaks national and international laws,” he said, translated from Spanish. In practice, this could mean vessels are fishing without the necessary license(s); operating in areas where fishing is banned, such as a protected reserve; utilizing prohibited gear; catching more fish than their quota allows; and/or catching prohibited species, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. 

Illegal fishing is not automatically unsustainable or bad for fish stocks. Legal fishing can also collapse fisheries or cause species extinction, especially when countries set quotas that are too high. And in some cases, the law may be too strict and/or not consider the full scope of community needs in the region. For example, Indigenous communities may continue utilizing traditional fishing practices or fish in areas that are not allowed, even though they are not contributing to overfishing. 

Unreported fishing 

The second piece of IUU fishing – unreported – means the fishing activities are not reported or are misreported to the appropriate fisheries management authorities. Some fishing vessels don’t report or misreport because they’re fishing illegally, such as by catching more of a certain species than the quota allows or catching species that are not permitted to be caught. This type of fishing is both illegal and unreported, but unreported fishing is not always illegal. In some places, for example, vessels may only be required to report the fish they are going to sell, meaning any fish caught and discarded – such as non-target species or juveniles – does not need to be reported.  

Reporting accurate fish catch numbers is important because it helps governments set accurate quotas. Without information on how many fish we’ve taken from a particular population, it’s hard for enforcement agencies to know how much vessels can continue fishing without depleting the population to an unsustainable level. Sometimes, countries can’t monitor their fish stocks adequately because they lack resources to do so and therefore don’t know what their baselines should be. But make no mistake: Even when governments have accurate information, sometimes the quotas they set are still too high and lead to overfishing.  

There’s also another side to unreported fishing, beyond its importance for commercial fishing: Artisanal and subsistence fishers who primarily catch fish to feed their own families. This type of fishing often occurs close to shore and the fish is taken home for dinner, where it’s eaten before anyone has a chance to count or monitor it. While this is technically unreported fishing, it may or may not be illegal depending on local regulations. And because they lack the money and resources of large vessels, fishing bans and rule changes often affect these fishers more, especially when governments don’t collect community input. This is another good example of a time when the law may not always capture the full scope of an issue. 

Unregulated fishing 

The final piece – unregulated – means several different things. First, it’s important to note that almost all commercial fishing vessels are regulated to some degree. Even if a vessel is operating somewhere without direct fishing regulations, other international agencies, such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO), can impose legally binding rules about other aspects of ocean activity that still apply.  

For example, the IMO, which is responsible for safe international shipping, requires that ships of a certain size carry an Automatic Identification System (AIS) device, which broadcasts a ship’s position, course, speed and other information to other ships to avoid collisions. All fishing vessels meeting the size requirement are subject to this rule, regardless of their nationality, type of fishing activity or location. But it’s very common for vessels to turn off their AIS devices for hours, days or weeks at a time to avoid detection while illegally fishing, maybe because they’re entering an area where fishing is banned, utilizing prohibited gear or engaging in other illegal activities. Vessels have other tactics to avoid regulation, as well. They may carry the Indonesian flag, for instance, but later change to a Thai flag in order to move more freely in a particular area or hide from authorities. Or, they may not fly a flag at all.

More than 400,000 AIS devices broadcast information each year, and the number of vessels carrying them is increasing by 10-30 percent every year. The data is picked up by ground stations and satellites, so even ships in remote ocean regions can be tracked. There are roughly 2.9 million fishing vessels in the world, and only two percent of them carry AIS devices. However, those two percent are responsible for around 80 percent of the fishing that occurs on the high seas and more than half of the fishing that occurs more than 100 nautical miles from the shore.
Sources: FAO and Sala, E. et. al.

Using the phrase “IUU fishing” as a journalist 

It’s important to note that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing are distinct from each other, but they do overlap in some key ways. If the law says vessels don’t have to report bycatch or juveniles that are thrown back, that fishing is still unreported, but the vessels are operating legally, for example. Or in another case, a vessel may be operating somewhere where no fisheries management organization has authority, so they lack regulations and aren’t breaking any laws, and the fishing is unregulated but not illegal. These thorny intersections are part of the reason why it’s so difficult to fully understand the impact of IUU fishing on our marine ecosystems and to prevent it. 

Journalists should pay attention to these nuances and refrain from replicating common biases about illegal fishing in your stories. Instead of falling back on buzzword terms, say what you mean and investigate the whole story: If vessels or fishers are breaking the law, how are they breaking it and why? Does the law match up-to-date fisheries science and take into account the needs of Indigenous and artisanal fishing communities? Who made the law and why – and how long ago? There are both bad laws and bad fishing practices out there, and it’s your job to figure out who’s who. 

When looking at government quotas, journalists should be asking how data collection actually works. Does the law mandate that vessels report any fish they catch, including bycatch or juveniles that were thrown back? How does the reporting infrastructure work, and what are the mechanisms to avoid forged data? How are scientists in your region utilizing that data, and how does it inform quotas set by fisheries management organizations? Data collection may seem dull at first, but it’s the foundation of fisheries science and can tell you a lot about how conservation and other management measures are working in your region. 

Why jurisdiction and governance matter 

To understand why IUU fishing is so hard to combat, we need to talk about jurisdiction. Jurisdiction in the ocean can be challenging – after all, it covers more than 70% of the earth's surface. Global agreements state that each country's national jurisdiction extends 200 nautical miles off their coastline, in what's called their Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. Any farther, and it becomes the "high seas," meaning no one country's rules or regulations apply. 

map of the west coast of africa
A map of Africa’s west coast with each country’s Exclusive Economic Zone highlighted in blue. It’s important to note that EEZs include any island territories administered by the country. For example, Equatorial Guinea has an EEZ at their mainland shore and an EEZ surrounding the island province of Annobón / Credit: Dyhia Belhabib, 2015.

 

map of the english channel between france and the uk
But what happens when EEZs touch or overlap, such as when two countries are less than 200 nautical miles apart? Well, the countries involved need to negotiate. Often, the territory is split directly down the middle, like in the English Channel between the United Kingdom and France, displayed on this map. However, as you can see, it’s not always simple – islands, peninsulas and the presence of many neighboring countries can pose challenges to conflict resolution / Credit: Institute for Government, Scotland via SeafoodMediaGroup.

Although a country’s EEZ gives them the right to exploit or conserve any resources found within the water, on the sea floor or under the sea floor, it does not give them the right to prohibit or limit navigation of foreign vessels or flights from international aircraft in the airspace above their EEZ. For example, Kenya could not prohibit Tanzanian boats or planes from entering Kenya’s EEZ – but it does stipulate what they can and cannot do there. (On the other hand, a country’s official territory extends 12 nautical miles out from the shore, and they can prohibit other nations from accessing or passing through their “territorial waters,” just as if it were land.) 

Within the EEZ, countries generally have ministries or government agencies responsible for developing and enforcing fisheries management measures, such as quotas, marine protected areas or species prohibitions. For example, in Chile, the Undersecretariat for Fisheries and Aquaculture sits within the Ministry of Economy, Development and Tourism. It regulates aquaculture, small-scale fishing, industrial fishing, recreational fishing and more. There are also eight regional directorates across the country that implement and enforce the rules on a local level. (Chile is a notable example of a country that has made a lot of headway in protecting their fisheries and ocean, and you can read more about it here.) 

Outside of the EEZs, the high seas account for two-thirds of the world’s ocean, and typically, the fishing that occurs there takes a “free-for-all" approach. However, there are regulatory bodies managing what happens on the high seas: Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, or RFMOs. RFMOs consist of representatives from relevant countries in the region, both coastal states themselves and other countries interested in fishing in those waters. Countries that send their fishing fleets to other areas and participate in the relevant RFMO there are called “distant water fishing nations.”

a map of the world demonstrating that the majority of the ocean is high seas, not territorial waters
A map of the world, where exclusive economic zones are in dark blue and the high seas are in light blue. As the map shows, the vast majority of the ocean is considered “high seas” / Credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts.

 

Efforts are underway at the international level to better protect and regulate the high seas, under an existing United Nations treaty known as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was signed in 1982. This new agreement, Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, or BBNJ, would create a legally binding instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of marine areas beyond national jurisdiction, also known as the high seas. How the treaty will operate is still up for debate – but it could include the expansion of marine protected areas, increased environmental impact assessments to evaluate marine life, equitable resource, technology and information transfers between countries and more. Journalists: You can consider investigating your country’s stance on the BBNJ treaty and how, if signed, it would affect your audience.
Source: High Seas Alliance.

Every RFMO is different, and its mandate is set by an international agreement between member countries. An RFMO could focus specifically on a certain type of fish, such as tuna, while others may focus more broadly on regulating all fishing activities in the area. Typically, though, RFMOs focus on “commercially valuable species,” meaning those that are intended for human and/or animal use.  

It’s also important to note that not all fisheries management bodies are RFMOs. An RFMO only has jurisdiction over fisheries – not any other marine life – and they don’t necessarily have a conservation focus. But organizations like CCAMLR, or the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, are also international fisheries management organizations, but with a different mandate. CCAMLR was established through an international convention in 1982 with the mission to conserve Antarctic marine life. This includes regulating the fishing that occurs within their jurisdiction, but also includes a lot more. It has 26 official members (25 countries plus the European Union) and another 10 who have agreed to its provisions. Is your country one of them? Understanding your country’s own regulations, their participation in any regional RFMOs and signing of international conventions like CCAMLR is an important part of reporting on fisheries. 

a flowchart demonstrating the international infrastructure and organizations managing the ocean
A flowchart examining the many different organizations, conventions and agencies responsible for managing activities in the ocean, including the International Maritime Organization, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and many others / Credit: Handbook of Ocean Resources, Ardron, J. & Warner, R., via Kristina Gjerde.

RFMOs and other fisheries management organizations often conflict with Indigenous communities, especially on activities like whaling. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) recognizes the difference between what they call “aboriginal subsistence whaling” and commercial whaling (which is banned) and allows several member countries to conduct subsistence whale hunts: Greenland (which is part of Denmark), Russia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Alaska in the United States. This environmental justice angle – how rules do or do not take Indigenous cultural traditions and livelihoods into account – is an important aspect to consider when reporting on all fisheries.  

Notably, Japan withdrew from the IWC in 2019 in order to resume commercial whaling, and Norway, while remaining a member of the Commission, has continued to kill whales regularly after lodging a formal objection to the ban in 1993. Issues of enforcement remain a contentious topic at the international level as organizations like the IWC do not have the authority they may require in order to prevent the extinction of whale species or other marine life.

There are at least 16 RFMOs with some overlapping territory. Five of them focus specifically on tuna: For example, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission is the oldest RFMO, established in 1949 between the United States and Costa Rica. It also began the first program designed to manage tuna fisheries by limiting the annual catch of yellowfin tuna in 1966. Today, the RFMO has more than 20 members from across the world, including big players like the European Union, Japan and China. Looking into the history of your local RFMO could yield you an interesting story idea: How many RFMOs has your country joined? How do those RFMOs make decisions, and who has your government appointed to be your country’s representative there? What are your government’s priorities in their RFMO(s) and how might that affect local fishers?
Sources: Convention on Biological Diversity Secretariat, International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission.

 

A map of current regional fisheries management bodies, including RFMOs and international conventions like CCAMLR / Credit: IUCN Shark Specialist Group.
A map of current regional fisheries management bodies, including RFMOs and international conventions like CCAMLR / Credit: IUCN Shark Specialist Group.

Any decisions made by an RFMO – for instance, establishing catch limits or fishing seasons, or other regulatory measures – reflect the geopolitical and socioeconomic agendas of the member countries. As a result, it’s often difficult to reach agreements and decisions sometimes don’t rely on the latest science. These same conflicts happen at the international level, too, and can make it extremely difficult to reach a consensus or develop international regulations, not to mention report on it.  

If the international regulatory infrastructure wasn’t complicated enough, there is also often national legislation that applies to vessels navigating the high seas. In the United States, for example, the High Seas Fishing Compliance Act was signed into law in 1996 and requires that all commercial fishing vessels registered in the country have a permit to fish on the high seas. Part of the requirement to hold this permit includes compliance with the relevant international agreements, such as those created by CCAMLR or the Law of the Sea. Vessels are also required to report their fishing efforts to the appropriate U.S. agency. 

To better understand their local context, journalists can investigate how their country’s fisheries are governed. How does your fisheries ministry or agency regulate within your EEZ? Who are the members of the RFMO in your region, and what are their agendas? What are the major issues up for debate within the RFMO? How does the RFMO(s), your country’s fisheries agency and/or other management bodies govern – or fail to govern – the region’s fisheries? What other international treaties and federal laws has your country signed related to fisheries or ocean conservation? Understanding how governance affects your region’s fisheries is an important first step to reporting on these issues. 

Solutions journalism for IUU fishing 

1) Preventing IUU fishing through legislation 

Some of the world’s largest seafood consumers – the United States, the European Union and Japan – have all enacted laws banning IUU-sourced seafood from entering their markets, with Japan passing it most recently in 2020. Along with bans on illegally caught seafood, India can’t export shrimp to the United States because the country has not mandated Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs) in their trawl nets, costing them $300 million annually if not resolved. (TEDs reduce the chance that turtles will be caught as bycatch.) 

A turtle exclusion, or excluder, device. The net contains an escape hatch to prevent fishing vessels from catching turtles as bycatch / Credit: Oceana.
A turtle exclusion, or excluder, device. The net contains an escape hatch to prevent fishing vessels from catching turtles as bycatch / Credit: Oceana.

Indian journalist Binu Karunakaran explored this issue in a recent EJN-supported story on fisheries in Kerala. In the piece, he quoted KS Srinivas, the chairman of the Marine Products Export Development Authority in Kochi, India: “If you engage in illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing, most countries don’t want to buy from you,” he said. 

Karunakaran reports that other countries are moving faster than India to resolve the problem: Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand are taking steps toward certifying their fisheries to comply with new legislation being enacted in Japan and elsewhere.

This type of legislation – where countries won’t allow both illegal and/or unsustainable fish catch in their markets – can create a major economic incentive to regulate and conserve marine ecosystems rather than lose export markets. In the European Union, for example, the European Commission issues ‘yellow cards’ to countries “turning a blind eye” to illegal fishing, and if those countries don’t rectify the issue, they are given a ‘red card’ and their products are banned within the EU. For example, as of February 2022, the Commission has given red cards to Cambodia, Comoros and St. Vincent and the Grenadines; countries with yellow cards include Panama, Cameroon, Vietnam, Liberia and others. (You can check country status through the EU IUU Fishing Coalition’s online tracker.

If you’re a journalist from a country with a yellow or red card from the European Commission, there are several interesting angles you can investigate: What’s the story behind the carding – what did your country do – or fail to do – in regard to illegal fishing? Where does your country export seafood and fish, if it can’t do business with the EU? What alternative markets do they use? How does it affect your country’s economy or the livelihoods of small-scale fishers?  

Kenzo Kaifu, a researcher at Chuo University in Japan, spoke at our July webinar on IUU fishing in Japan on the importance of anti-IUU legislation, focusing on one particular case study: The glass eel. Recent scarcity has driven up the price of this popular species, and it’s becoming more and more difficult for fishers to legally catch them. Without regulation, IUU fishing would deplete the glass eel’s populations and continue the cycle. However, enforcing the new law means glass eels in Japanese waters can only be fished by licensed fishers who report the exact amount caught to the appropriate authorities. Imported eels also need to be legally registered in order to be sold. Although eels are still caught and smuggled illegally, strong enforcement of the law makes it less profitable (and more difficult) to illegally catch the species, incentivizing legal fishing activities. 

  • Japan isn’t the only country dealing with illegal eel business. EJN grantee Daniela Quintero Diaz reported in February 2022 on eel fishing in the Dominican Republic, where baby eels are caught and sold in a murky, million-dollar market. Read the piece.

Across 84 seafood stocks in Japan, 43 were assessed in a 2021 report to have a biologically favorable status (or sustainable population levels), Kaifu explains. Although it’s always difficult to know if illegal activity has truly decreased, political and economic pressure is a powerful tool to make governments act.  

In your own countries, journalists can investigate if your policymakers are planning to enact similar laws against illegal and unsustainable fishing, or if there are already bills in discussion in your legislative body. Do nearby countries, or countries with similar fisheries challenges, have legislation that your country could learn from? What makes a successful anti-IUU law – things like allocated spending, strong enforcement, local and national partnerships or something else? And on the flip side, how are other countries’ legislation impacting fishers in your region, like Karunakaran explored in India? What do fishers need from government agencies in order to make a change?  

2) Preventing IUU fishing through monitoring 

Across the world, Ecuador is dealing with a different – but equally challenging – IUU fishing problem. In late June 2020, 300 Chinese fishing vessels parked themselves along the edge of Ecuador’s EEZ, close to the incredibly biodiverse Galapagos Marine Reserve. But Chinese vessels were never directly caught breaking the law and entering Ecuador’s EEZ, and Ecuadorian authorities could not prove they were there. 

A composite data image showing all AIS vessel traces and the intensity of the activity as the fleet swarmed along the southern edge of the EEZ boundary of the Galapagos Islands / Credit: HawkEye 360, via Mongabay.
A composite data image showing all AIS vessel traces and the intensity of the activity as the fleet swarmed along the southern edge of the EEZ boundary of the Galapagos Islands / Credit: HawkEye 360, via Mongabay.

This issue is not new. Illegal fishing in the Galapagos has been on the rise in recent years, as it has become a key stop on a larger transnational illegal fishing route that includes Argentina, Chile and Peru. The Galapagos Marine Reserve is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world and fishing activities are banned, which has allowed wildlife populations to thrive. As a result, the Reserve is experiencing what is known as the spillover effect – where populations rebound to such an extent that they leave the reserve and live in other nearby areas. This is good for marine ecosystems, but it’s also good for IUU fishing.

The spillover effect is a phenomenon that occurs when marine protected areas (MPAs) are successful in returning wildlife populations to high levels. As their numbers grow, animals gradually leave the reserve and expand into the wider region. This is important because it provides evidence that MPAs and fishing activities can coexist, and even help each other. Typically, MPAs are disliked by fishers because they take away fishing grounds, reducing catch. However, if the MPA remains protected and marine species then leave the reserve, those non-protected areas can serve as extremely productive fishing spots and boost the local fisheries economy. Scientists are still investigating whether the spillover effect can truly compensate for the fishing grounds that are lost when MPAs are established, but this is an important story journalists can explore in their home communities.
Source: National Science Foundation.

So, that brings us back to how we know where those vessels were, even though they had their AIS devices turned off: At the time, China’s ambassador to Ecuador said the ships did not break the law, and Ecuador’s authorities agreed. But a few months later, a data analytics company called HawkEye 360, based in the United States, released new data that changed the picture, reported by Elizabeth Claire Alberts for Mongabay in October 2020.  

Unidentified ships did enter Ecuador’s EEZ during the time period in question, the data shows, and did so at the same time that many Chinese ships stopped broadcasting their position. Now, this does not automatically prove that these ships are one and the same. However, it provided much more information than physical monitoring (by air or by boat) or AIS tracking could have alone. How did they do it?  

The Mongabay article explains that HawkEye used satellites and partnered with a French aerospace company to track vessels through their radio frequencies. These radio signals come from different types of navigational radar systems, like satellite phones. There are limitations, though – this type of monitoring can’t identify the ships’ nationality, or what they’re doing, but still may make it harder for illegal fishing vessels to operate completely invisibly.

An illustration of vessels that disappeared from AIS tracking over a period of 8+ hours, demonstrating the difficulties of maintaining awareness when there are many gaps in the records / Credit: HawkEye 360, via Mongabay.
An illustration of vessels that disappeared from AIS tracking over a period of 8+ hours, demonstrating the difficulties of maintaining awareness when there are many gaps in the records / Credit: HawkEye 360, via Mongabay.

 

Sometimes, monitoring can take a different, more innovative approach. From December 2018 to June 2019, radar sensors were attached to more than 150 albatrosses to track Indian Ocean fishing vessels. Albatrosses are naturally long-distance birds, and they are attracted to fishing vessels. When the birds were released and allowed to fly their typical patterns, the sensors detected that over the 6-month period, more than 25 percent of vessels had their AIS devices turned off inside EEZs, and 37 percent had them turned off in international waters.
Source: New Scientist.

These stories from Japan, India and Ecuador present some possible solutions that other countries could implement as part of their IUU fishing mitigation strategies, and journalists should look into their own governments’ plans. What is your government currently doing to prevent IUU fishing? What are the barriers or roadblocks to mitigation? What innovations are local researchers or NGOs developing? Is there a case study from another country that might serve as a model for your community? 

3) Preventing IUU fishing through artificial intelligence 

“Technology is part of the answer,” said Peter Horn, project director of international fisheries for The Pew Charitable Trusts, as part of our February 2021 webinar. He’s referring to current initiatives to use artificial intelligence to prevent illegal fishing – going a step beyond the monitoring and tracking conducted in Ecuador in 2020.  

Artificial intelligence (AI) is when machines can learn from experience, adjust to new information and perform human-like tasks. In some cases, AI can perform tasks more efficiently and accurately than humans (especially repetitive, detail-oriented tasks). In the case of illegal fishing, Horn believes AI could replace human ocean observers on vessels.  

Traditionally, human observers are trained individuals who spend weeks or months aboard vessels, checking for any illegal activity in order to report back to fisheries management organizations. They work long hours and can face dangerous conditions at sea, plus they’re also expensive, considered intrusive by fishers and hard to find in remote areas. If replaced with an AI monitoring system, the AI could automatically review footage, monitor vessel patterns, verify compliance with catch limits and bycatch discard standards and more. Because AI can process large volumes of data, it goes beyond what human science and observers can currently do.  

An animation showing how AIS tracking could use AI effectively. Global Fishing Watch, a portal which shows vessel movement in almost real-time, uses a neural network (a type of computer program) to identify vessel size, engine power, type of fishing and the gear used / Credit: The Conversation.
An animation showing how AIS tracking could use AI effectively. Global Fishing Watch, a portal which shows vessel movement in almost real-time, uses a neural network (a type of computer program) to identify vessel size, engine power, type of fishing and the gear used / Credit: The Conversation.

 

Artificial intelligence isn’t the only form of advanced technology that can be utilized in the prevention of oceanic crime. Satellite imaging and tracking technology continues to improve. New ideas are emerging, such as DNA barcoding, where fish DNA is evaluated to identify endangered species that should not be on the market. Illegal activity is also increasingly happening online, through social media platforms and the dark net, and monitoring systems are being developed to track and combat it. Unmanned vehicles like submarines, deep-sea robots and drones could assist smaller countries without the staff or the money to heavily regulate their EEZ. What new technologies are scientists in your country working on?
Source: Camacho-Oliveira, R. B., et. al.

However, challenges exist with every kind of technology. Peter Stoett, the dean of social science and humanities at Ontario Tech University, noted in our webinar three major issues with artificial intelligence as an illegal fishing prevention tool: 

  • Accessibility: Governments and private companies are often unwilling to share data or unwilling to share it for free.  

  • Quality: Ensuring the reliability of the data is very difficult, especially when different countries and agencies use different methodologies and collection strategies.  

  • Sparsity: Sometimes, the data just isn’t available for a particular time period or in a particular region. 

“I think artificial intelligence and advanced tech in general has great promise – there's no doubt about that, and this is going to be one of the big stories in the next five years,” Stoett said at the webinar. “But it won’t eliminate certain things that are, at heart, political: Distrust issues between fishers and governments, corporate rivalries, security dilemmas … [and] it will not eliminate the main drivers of oceanic crime: Greed, poverty and ignorance.”

Journalists interested in how technology can be applied to combat IUU fishing can explore some of these important themes in their work. How could an AI monitoring system be implemented in your region – and what are its limitations? Does your RFMO or other fisheries regulatory body utilize human observers, and to what extent are they effective? What other technological advancements could be implemented as strategies to reduce IUU fishing? Who is working on these issues in your region and what barriers do they face, such as lack of funding or government interest?  

Finding the human-interest angle 

Because commercial vessels engaging in IUU fishing do not follow conservation rules, they are likely to extract more fish than is sustainable for the ecosystem – species that are endangered and juveniles, which haven’t had the chance to breed yet. This leaves much less available for small-scale or artisanal fishers, people who fish close to shore for their own food or livelihood and can’t compete with large commercial vessels. It also affects which kinds of fish or seafood are available, changing traditional diets and preventing people from accessing a primary food source. As a result, people may become food insecure or be forced to migrate elsewhere. These social dimensions of fisheries are an important story to be told, along with the scientific data. 

Artisanal and subsistence fishers and Indigenous fishing communities all face unique challenges within the fisheries industry. They are routinely outcompeted by large commercial vessels, who overfish their traditional waters and leave nothing behind. There are also exploitative business arrangements, where businesspeople own the fishing boats and gear, and therefore take most of the profits. Rule changes at the national level often lack community input, and fishers may find their traditional fishing practices suddenly illegal with no recourse or alternative livelihood. And often, fishers are not paid fairly: In the European Union, for example, a WWF report found that 43% of EU fishers earned below the national minimum wage in 2018. For EU fishers on smaller boats, under 12 meters in length, that figure is 70%.

Stories highlighting the environmental justice and socioeconomic aspects of overfishing and IUU are just as important as stories about disappearing marine life. Journalists should always be cognizant of these angles and strive to highlight this nuance and context in their reporting. IUU fishing is often linked to unsustainable, illegally caught seafood, but that’s not the only story that needs telling.  

In addition to its effects on local fishers and communities, IUU fishing is dangerous for the people doing it, as well. Karen McVeigh, the global development correspondent for The Guardian, spoke at our webinar about a 2020 story she published with co-journalist Febriana Firdaus. The piece centered on the Long Xing 629, a Chinese-owned fishing vessel that was illegally hunting for shark fins with a crew of 24 Indonesian sailors. When the ship returned to port, only 20 sailors remained, after facing 18-hour days, starvation and dehydration and seeing their fellow sailors’ bodies thrown overboard. 

“I think it really brought home to people what was happening, and see what exactly was going on,” McVeigh said during the webinar. “It was a human tragedy.”

Human trafficking and slavery at sea are rampant in the fisheries industry, and particularly present with illegal fishing because it’s already unregulated. Stoett, the dean from Ontario Tech University, estimated that more than 10,000 people every year are enslaved in the fishing industry. 

The Indonesian crew of the vessel. Sepri (middle top row, red-sleeved top) and Alfatah (second from right, top row) died at sea, and their bodies were thrown overboard against the wishes of the crew / Credit: The Guardian.
The Indonesian crew of the vessel. Sepri (middle top row, red-sleeved top) and Alfatah (second from right, top row) died at sea, and their bodies were thrown overboard against the wishes of the crew / Credit: The Guardian.

In 2016, the Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their 18-month long investigation into sea slavery in Southeast Asia. The first investigation was published in 2015, by reporters Robin McDowell, Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza, and it was called “Slaves may have caught the fish you bought.” 

The piece opens in Benjina, Indonesia, where enslaved Burmese fishing laborers were held in a locked cage, with only a few bites of food a day, until another fishing vessel in need of their services came to dock. The journalists demonstrated how that fish, caught by enslaved workers from Myanmar, made its way into supermarket chains in the United States, including Kroger, Walmart, Safeway and others. One source who fled enslavement said: “If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us … There must be a mountain of bones under the sea. ... The bones of the people could be an island, it’s that many.” 

After the investigation, more than 300 enslaved workers were rescued from Benjina, and AP continued to report those stories: Fishers returning home to long-lost families, how major companies like Nestle confirmed labor abuse among their suppliers after an investigation, and finally when then-U.S. President Barack Obama banned the import of any goods produced by enslaved workers into the United States. 

Former enslaved fisher, Myint Naing, left, is embraced by his mother Khin Than, second left, as his sister Mawli Than, right, is overcome with emotion. They were reunited after 22 years in their village in Mon State, Myanmar on May 16, 2015 / Credit: Associated Press, Gemunu Amarasinghe.
Former enslaved fisher, Myint Naing, left, is embraced by his mother Khin Than, second left, as his sister Mawli Than, right, is overcome with emotion. They were reunited after 22 years in their village in Mon State, Myanmar on May 16, 2015 / Credit: Gemunu Amarasinghe for Associated Press.

Of course, not every journalist has the resources of the Associated Press behind them, but it doesn’t mean you’re not able to make a difference when reporting on these issues. Sometimes the human-interest angle is about human rights and enslaved workers, but it can also focus on individual people’s struggles to feed their families or to make a living. Journalists can ask: Who is benefiting from illegal fishing, and who is being sidelined or abused? Where are companies cutting corners and allowing unsafe working conditions, pollution or overfishing? What is your government doing – or not doing – to ensure the fish that is exported from and imported into your country did not come from slavery? 

How to get started: Story themes, examples and resources 

IUU fishing is a global issue that has already started to take our global fishing stocks and oceans by storm. Understanding the interdisciplinary nature of this topic, and how it needs to be tackled on every front — whether it’s via human trafficking organizations or an AI ocean vessel locator — is critical to your ability to report on this issue effectively. It may be a global issue, but small reports can have large impacts. 

You don’t need to spend months at sea in order to tell great stories about IUU fishing and fisheries in general. Spatial mapping, databases, ship tracking websites and other data sources can yield deep insights without ever leaving your home. And, crime is increasingly migrating online, to social media platforms and the dark net, making it easier to track without going anywhere. In addition, small-scale fishers living on the coasts are a big part of this story, too. Journalists can highlight the diminishing returns they face every time they go out to sea and explore the solutions many of them have adapted in order to survive alongside commercial vessels. Reporters can also collaborate with each other across borders, sharing data, sources and information about geopolitical issues between countries and their fishing fleets.

We’ve included some story themes, in-depth pieces on IUU fishing around the world and a long list of resources for you to keep reading and get started.  

Story themes 

  • Fisheries subsidies: Subsidies are payments made by public entities to the private sector that incentivize development, address inequity or social issues or address conservation concerns. For example, governments may incentivize farmers to conserve some of their land for pollinators with financial payments. Fisheries subsidies specifically involve support to the fisheries industry and are often promoted as efforts to modernize or equip small-scale fishers. Yet they often end up subsidizing overfishing by increasing a vessel’s capacity to fish to the point where they catch more than is environmentally sustainable. Subsidies can come in many forms, including gear, operating costs, fuel, vessel upgrades and more. Subsidies and IUU fishing are interconnected: Because subsidies are generally given indiscriminately – meaning the entire fleet has access to them, not just those who need them most, such as small-scale fishers – the big, commercial operations get even bigger and continue to overfish ecosystems. For instance, a subsidy to offset the price of fuel would be disproportionately more beneficial to a large vessel (where fuel accounts for a higher percentage of their overall costs) than to a smaller vessel (where wages are likely the biggest cost). If countries stopped subsidizing illegal activity by removing subsidies, it could create an economic incentive to fish legally by making it more costly to stay out at sea for long periods or travel long distances. Does your country have fisheries subsidies, and how do they work? Do they benefit small-scale fishers, or are they subsidizing industrial overfishing? Looking into these intersections can be a good way to localize your fisheries pieces. (For more information on fisheries subsidies, check out our May 2021 webinar and browse stories on the topic.)   

  • Transshipment: Transshipment is the transfer of fish or other marine wildlife from a fishing vessel to what’s called a “carrier vessel,” meaning an intermediary between the fishers and the buyers. It’s often used as an efficiency tool, to reduce the amount of time it takes for the fish to reach the market. But it also plays a major part in IUU fishing: Without effective monitoring and tracking, illegal transshipments where data is manipulated or obscured are increasingly common. Transshipment can also facilitate human rights violations by allowing ships to remain at sea for long periods of time without docking at a port, where they might be inspected. Many experts consider transshipment to be a missing link in understanding how the global IUU fishing industry operates, and it’s a major story journalists can start looking into. 

  • Trade routes: Understanding where fish comes from, who catches it and where it’s eventually sold and eaten is a major piece of the IUU fishing puzzle. Is your country part of an illegal fishing supply chain, either at the production or the consumption end? Who fishes in your country’s waters, and where do they sell that fish? IUU fishing is transnational by nature, and illegal fish can make several stops before it’s eventually consumed. Working with journalists in other countries to identify and track where shipments go after they’re caught can produce impactful journalism. 

  • The role of marine protected areas: In this tipsheet, we’ve discussed the potential value of successful marine protected areas in fostering productive fishing grounds outside the reserve. Journalists can investigate the marine protected areas in their country – if there are any – and what areas might benefit from being protected that aren’t already. There’s a lot to explore here: What are the political difficulties in your country to establishing marine protected areas? How could fishers and government work together to increase catch and prevent fish populations from declining? 

  • How international treaties could affect you: Along with the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions treaty underway at the United Nations, there are other international agreements regulating how the global fisheries industry operates. What treaties has your country signed, or not signed? How would the new BBNJ treaty affect fishing communities in your region? International regulation is a big topic, and it can be hard to see the threads linking what happens at the UN to what’s happening in your country’s waters. Identifying how a specific regulation or treaty could affect fishers on the ground is another way of localizing a big story for your regional audience. 

  • The role of advanced technology: One of the major solutions governments and organizations are investigating right now is advanced technology like artificial intelligence. But as mentioned in this tipsheet, technology isn’t a perfect solution: It can exacerbate inequality, rather than solve it, and it could remain largely inaccessible to smaller and poorer countries unless a methodology is developed to make it available. The ethics of artificial intelligence and advanced technology – both how it’s used and who uses it – is an important piece of this story.  

  • Other forms of oceanic crime: IUU fishing is part of a larger type of crime – crime that happens on the oceans, and there’s plenty more. Companies illegally dumping toxic chemicals and pollution; illegal sand and pebble mining eroding the seafloor; the illegal harvesting and destruction of coral reefs; transporting exotic and invasive species as part of the illegal wildlife trade; acoustic pollution and regulatory violations from shipping, drilling and military activity; and illegal shipping and smuggling of drugs, weapons and even people are just a few. There are a lot of stories to tell about illegal activity across – and deep within – the ocean, and journalists have a unique ability to shed light on them. 

Examples of robust ocean journalism:

  • Seafood from Slaves: An 18-month investigation by Associated Press journalists into the abusive practices of the fishing industry in Southeast Asia. 

  • The Outlaw Ocean Project: Journalism dedicated to producing high-impact investigative stories about lawlessness at sea and the diversity of environmental, human rights, and labor abuses occurring offshore around the world. 

  • Seascape: A project from The Guardian that focuses on the health of the seas, the impact of fishing and pollution, and global efforts to drive forward conservation.  

  • Transshipment, the Art of Fishing Laundering: The Environmental Reporting Collective spent nearly a year investigating IUU fishing, with journalists from over a dozen newsrooms working together. 

  • Catch Me If You Can: The Global Pursuit of a Fugitive Ship: An in-depth report from Hakai Magazine on the chase of infamous illegal fishing vessel STS-50.  

Resources 

General information on IUU fishing 

Governance and international agreements 

Regional resources 

Human rights issues 

Data, technology and ship tracking resources 


Banner image: A man unloads fish from the U.S. fishing vessel, the Sea Dragon, at Pier 38 in Honolulu, March 23, 2016 / Credit: Caleb Jones, Associated Press.

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