Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is one of the most serious threats to the future of world fisheries, a new report, Pirates and Profiteers, by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) reveals today. Occurring in virtually all fisheries, IUU fishing is a global phenomenon with substantial and growing negative social, economic, and environmental impacts.

  • IUU fishing inflicts damage on seabirds, marine mammals, sea turtles, and marine biodiversity as a whole. An estimated 100,000 seabirds, including tens of thousands of endangered albatrosses, are killed each year by illegal longline vessels in the Southern Ocean.

  • IUU fishing operators steal food from some of the poorest people in the world and ruin the livelihoods of legitimate fishers. IUU fishing is costing developing countries between US$2-15 billion per year.

  • IUU fishing is estimated to account for 30% of total catches in some important fisheries. In some ports 50% of total landings come from IUU vessels.

  • Efforts to sustainably manage fisheries are seriously undermined by IUU fishing, and in extreme circumstances it can lead to the collapse of a fishery.

IUU fishing is a symptom of the wider crisis in world fisheries. 75% of commercially important marine stocks are currently being overfished, or are being fished at their biological limit.

Despite some Government measures to conserve fish stocks, in the face of increasing consumer demand and lucrative economic gains, the incentives for IUU continue to increase. With a single tuna fish selling for up to US$50,000 illegal operators are cashing-in on the profits to be made.

IUU covers a range of activities including: fishing without a licence or out of season, harvesting prohibited species, using banned fishing gears, catching more fish than are allowed, and not reporting or misreporting catches.

A key way in which fishermen are circumventing management and conservation measures and avoiding penalties for illegal fishing, is by registering under a "Flag of Convenience" (FOC). Although international law specifies that the country whose flag a vessel flies is responsible for controlling its activities, certain countries allow vessels to fly their flag for a few hundred dollars, and then ignore any offences committed.

The failure of the international community to close this legal loophole has resulted in a proliferation of FOC vessels over the past 20 years. 54% of Flag of Convenience countries are members of the Commonwealth, 43% are declared tax havens by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and a third of the world's merchant fleet operate under FOC.

"Flags of Convenience are just a cheap trick by which any unscrupulous operator can avoid controls and maximize profits," said EJF Director, Steve Trent.

IUU fishing is rampant in the coastal waters of many developing States. The seas off the coast of West Africa support one of the world's most productive marine ecosystems, upon which millions of local people depend, yet the lack of resources to properly police territorial waters is ruthlessly exploited by IUU operators. IUU fishers are stealing food from some of the poorest people in the world and ruining the livelihoods of legitimate fishermen. Crucially, these same fish can end up on the plates of consumers in the EU, USA, Japan and other developed countries.

EJF is calling upon the G8 and EU - and in particular the United Kingdom, as it assumes the Presidency of both the G8 and European Union on 1st July 2005 - to provide political leadership in support of new and effective measures to combat IUU fishing. All of the G8 and the EU have made numerous statements of support and entered into commitments to eradicate IUU fishing.

"Failure by the G8 and EU to show political leadership and act against IUU will directly lead to a deteriorating situation, declines in commercial catch, marine biodiversity and impoverished livelihoods in some of the world's poorest nations," said Trent, continuing, "We need the G8 and EU to take the lead in outlawing Flags of Convenience and introducing truly effective controls against IUU". "It is also clear that the economic costs of inaction far outweigh the costs of new measures to stop IUU fishing. Action today against IUU would lend great support to the efforts, led by the UK, to reduce poverty, hunger and misery in Africa and across the world."


For further information, contact Steve Trent or Louis Buckley on: +44 (0) 20 7359 0440. Mobile: 079749 25659 (Trent) or 078133 73282 (Buckley). Email: or:

Notes to editors:

  1. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (Spain) is a major "Port of Convenience", providing services to IUU fleets, and hosting a number of companies that operate illegal vessels. It also serves as a gateway for illegally caught fish to the huge EU market. It is vital that the Spanish Government and wider European authorities introduce comprehensive and strictly enforced controls at Las Palmas.

  2. The major countries responsible for issuing Flags of Convenience are Belize, Panama, Honduras, and St Vincent and the Grenadines. EJF are calling for the loophole in international law that allows vessels to fly Flags of Convenience to be closed - a step which would single-handedly eliminate a very large proportion of IUU fishing. In particular, the governments of the UK and other Commonwealth countries must exert pressure on the 15 Commonwealth countries, listed in our report, that are currently failing to control vessels flying their flag.

  3. The extent of IUU fishing in some West African territorial waters is phenomenal. In 2001, an aerial survey of Guinea's territorial waters found that 60% of the 2,313 vessels spotted were committing offences. Incursions by trawlers into the inshore areas reserved for artisanal fishing can result in collisions with local fishing boats, the destruction of fishing gear, and the deaths of fishermen.

  4. Developing countries urgently require greater direct financial and technical support to build their capacity to effectively combat illegal fishing.

  5. IUU operators exploit the financial and human misery that prevails in many developing countries to run their activities at the lowest possible cost. Crews onboard IUU vessels tend to be recruited in low-income countries, and are forced to work in dangerous conditions and are subject to a catalogue of abuse.

  6. When vessels are caught engaging in IUU activities, the penalties faced by the crew, captain and vessel owner are often too small to act as an effective disincentive, especially when compared with the huge potential profits on offer. Consequently, existing financial penalties are seen simply as a cost of doing business.

  7. Numerous efforts have been made by governments and the international community to combat IUU fishing, including a FAO-brokered International plan of Action (implemented in 2001). However, the problem has continued to increase, as it is able to exploit a number of weaknesses and loopholes.

  8. IUU fleets specifically target commercially valuable high seas fisheries such as tuna and Patagonian toothfish. However, IUU fishing can also decimate far less lucrative stocks, but ones that nevertheless provide very important food sources and employment opportunities for people in developing countries.

  9. The clandestine nature of IUU fishing makes it extremely difficult to develop accurate assessments of the scope and scale, though it is widely believed to account for a significant proportion of global catches. One regional fisheries management organisation has indicated that IUU catches probably amount to three times the permitted catch level.

  10. One of the main ways in which IUU fishing can remain undetected is by vessels transshipping their catch at sea. Large vessels remain at sea for months at a time, refueling, re-supplying and rotating their crews. By transferring their catches onto transport ships (reefers) IUU fishing vessels never need enter ports with their illegally caught fish. Moreover, the illegally caught fish are laundered by mixing with legally caught fish onboard transport vessels.

  11. The Environmental Justice Foundation is an international NGO based in London, UK. For further information visit



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