Illegal Fishing

Illegal Fishing

What is Illegal Fishing?

Illegal fishing involves activities that violate national, regional, or international fisheries laws and regulations. This includes fishing without a license, exceeding catch quotas, using banned gear, fishing in closed areas or during prohibited seasons, and catching protected species. These actions undermine sustainable fishing practices, deplete fish stocks, harm marine ecosystems, and impact the livelihoods of legal fishers.

Every country has different laws governing fishing. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, illegal fishing is part of the broader term “illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.” The FAO defines illegal fishing as:

  • Activities conducted by national or foreign vessels in waters under a state’s jurisdiction, without that state’s permission, or in contravention of its laws and regulations
  • Activities conducted by vessels flying the flag of states that are parties to a relevant regional fisheries management organization (RFMO), but operate in contravention of the RFMO’s conservation and management measures
  • Fishing activities that violate national laws or international obligations, including those undertaken by cooperating states within RFMOs

International Laws or Agreements to Fight Against Illegal Fishing

  • United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a comprehensive international treaty that establishes the legal framework for marine and maritime activities. It defines the rights and responsibilities of nations concerning the use of the world’s oceans, promoting the peaceful use of marine resources, the protection of the marine environment, and the preservation of marine biodiversity. 

UNCLOS provides the legal basis for maritime zones, including territorial seas, exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and the high seas, within which states can regulate fishing activities to prevent illegal practices.

  • Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) are international bodies formed by countries with fishing interests in specific regions. They play a crucial role in managing fish stocks and conserving marine ecosystems on a regional scale. RFMOs establish conservation and management measures, such as catch limits, gear restrictions, and monitoring and reporting requirements, to ensure sustainable fishing practices. Examples of RFMOs include the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO). By coordinating efforts among member states, RFMOs help combat IUU fishing across borders.
  • National enforcement mechanisms: countries implement national enforcement mechanisms to uphold international and regional fisheries regulations within their jurisdictions. These mechanisms include licensing systems, monitoring and surveillance programs, and penalties for violations. 

Effective enforcement requires a combination of legal, administrative, and operational measures to detect, deter, and prosecute illegal fishing activities. Nations may deploy coast guards, naval patrols, and aerial surveillance to monitor their waters and ensure compliance with fishing laws. Without an effective AI system, coast guards and law enforcement agencies will not be effective in curtailing IUU fishing. 

Illegal Fishing

What Are Some Key Terms Relating to Illegal Fishing?

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishingFishing activities that violate laws, are not reported, or occur in unregulated areasIncludes fishing without a license, overfishing, and unauthorized fishing in protected areas
Fishing licenseOfficial permission to fish in a specified area under certain regulationsRequired by national and regional authorities to control fishing activities
Catch quotasLimits set on the amount of a specific fish species that can be caughtHelps prevent overfishing and ensure sustainable fish populations
Banned gearFishing equipment that is prohibited due to its destructive impactIncludes driftnets, explosives, and poisons
Closed areasMarine regions where fishing is restricted to protect ecosystemsMarine Protected Areas (MPAs), spawning grounds, and habitats of endangered species
Prohibited seasonsSpecific times of the year when fishing certain species is not allowedSeasonal bans during breeding seasons to ensure species reproduction
Protected speciesFish or marine life that are legally protected from being caughtExamples include certain species of sharks, dolphins, and sea turtles

What is the Impact of Illegal Fishing?

The impact of illegal fishing is felt in three ways: environmental, economic, and social.

Environmental impact: illegal fishing harms marine ecosystems by depleting fish populations, including those of endangered species. It disrupts food chains, causing imbalances that affect the entire marine environment. Destructive practices, such as using banned gear like dynamite, destroy coral reefs and seafloor habitats. Bycatch, the capture of non-target species, further threatens marine biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Economic impact: illegal fishing undermines the economic viability of legal fishing operations. It leads to overfishing, reducing fish stocks available to licensed fishers and making it harder for them to earn a living. This unfair competition can drive prices down, destabilize markets, and discourage investment in sustainable fishing practices. Local communities, particularly those in developing countries, are hit hardest as they often rely heavily on fisheries for income and employment. The loss of fish stocks can lead to economic decline and increased poverty in these regions.

Social impact: illegal fishing directly threatens the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on fishing for their income and sustenance. It depletes resources that coastal communities rely on, leading to job losses and economic instability. Moreover, it jeopardizes food security, particularly in regions where fish are a primary source of protein. Reduced fish availability can lead to higher food prices and decreased access to nutritious food, exacerbating hunger and malnutrition. In the long term, illegal fishing can force communities to migrate or find alternative, often less sustainable, sources of income.

Using AI to Detect IUU Vessels

The problem with most systems is that they heavily rely on Automatic Identification System (AIS) and Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) messages to determine whether a ship is engaging in IUU fishing activities. Fishing vessels can often bypass these checks, especially smaller fishing boats that don’t have AIS or VMS. 

An AI solution can be helpful in collecting significant amounts of data to provide a clearer understanding of their activities. Some of the activities that can raise a red flag are: 

  • Drifting: when a ship is moving at less than 3 knots, which is the average pace of two ships traveling side by side to transfer cargo, catch, or crew.
  • High risk zones: an AI solution can define hot spots as areas where there is a high occurrence of suspicious activity, such as ship-to-ship transfers, IUU fishing, or sanctions violations. 
  • Flags of convenience (FOC): vessels engaging in illegal activity frequently use the FOC to hide their ownership and avoid legal action or scrutiny. 
  • Meetings: an AI solution uses machine learning to recognize unusual behavior, including extended meetings ship-to-ship (STS) meetings.. These meetings are usually due to refueling, and transferring catch, crew, and supplies, all of which can violate regulations. 

By using an AI solution, shippers can mitigate their compliance risk management by detecting and avoiding vessels that are likely involved in, or in support of, illegal, unreported, and unregulated shipping practices.