international Day for the Fight against IUU Fishing

Getting to the bottom of the dark side of the seafood industry

Profile picture of Frida Bengtsson

Frida Bengtsson is a centre PhD student whose work focuses on understanding the complex web of actors and authorities involved with industrial fishing.

Centre PhD student Frida Bengtsson explains the complexities of dealing with illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and why she has never felt more hopeful than now

Story highlights

  • Like many environmental crimes, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is a global problem that impacts vulnerable communities the most
  • Addressing IUU fishing requires the consideration of issues of power and equity
  • The UN Decade for Ocean Science coupled with increased political interest in our oceans gives reason for hope

June 5 marks the International Day for the Fight against IUU Fishing. IUU stands for Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated. But what exactly does this mean in the world of fishing?

“As someone who researches ocean governance it’s one of those acronyms you come across but wish you didn’t have to,” reflects Frida Bengtsson, a centre PhD student whose work focuses on understanding the complex web of actors and authorities involved with industrial fishing.

“I think we all have a sense for the “I”. When something is illegal it means that someone has clearly broken a law, or has been involved in an unlawful activity,” she explains.

This can be that someone has fished in another country’s waters without a permit to do so. But what about those two Us? What do they mean?

“Unreported” means that the fishing is either not reported, or has been misreported to the relevant national authority or international organization.

“Unregulated fishing”, on the other hand, would be if a fishing vessel flies a flag of a country which is not a member of the organization managing fishing in a specific area, or if there simply isn’t anyone managing that particular fish stock or piece of ocean.

Frida Bengtsson is a centre PhD student whose work focuses on understanding the complex web of actors and authorities involved with industrial fishing. Photo: N. Cobbing /Greenpeace

A threat to sustainability

So what happens when there are no rules, no organizations enforcing the rules, or when countries struggle to monitor the activities that take place in the ocean?

The simple answer to that, says Bengtsson, is sadly and all too often nothing.

Fishing vessels who wish to hide their IUU catch will seek ports with fewer rules, refuel at sea, or transfer their catches onto refrigerated cargo vessels far from national waters and oversight.

Estimated to be worth US$10-23.5 billion annually, IUU fishing threatens the sustainability of fish populations, ecosystems and the livelihoods of those who fish legitimately.

An issue of power and equity

But reaching just solutions is no easy task.

“Anyone working on eliminating IUU fishing must consider issues of power and equity,” says Bengtsson.

In many parts of the world small-scale artisanal and Indigenous fishing is essential for food security, but happens outside of formal regulations and quota systems.

“So while it’s easy to call for stronger enforcement, regulations and punishment for illegal activities, one has to make sure that small-scale fishers, who often lack the capacity to comply or the political power to engage, are not further marginalized or criminalized”.

She continues: “There is an ocean of difference between large actors or sometimes organized crime systematically cheating the system, and vulnerable communities who rely on fish for food”.

This, she says, is why it’s essential to understand these complexities when addressing IUU fishing and deciding what to do about it.

Looking forward

Like many environmental crimes IUU fishing is a global problem that affects vulnerable communities the most.

It also underpins human rights abuses and slavery at sea as many of the crew that work on vessels notoriously involved in IUU fishing are from poor communities, sometimes trafficked and work in unsafe conditions.

Does she feel hopeless?

“No, even if it’s easy when you are talking about controlling crimes that are happening so far away from oversight. I have never felt more hopeful than now”.

An important decade

We have just entered into the UN Decade for Ocean Science. New technology and increased political interest in our oceans means that there are more eyes out there, more willingness to impose tougher rules, and fewer places to hide.

There is also exciting work ongoing at the SRC. Thanks to four years of dialogues through the science-industry initiative Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS), ten of the world's leading seafood companies have committed to time-bound goals for a healthy ocean.

“Getting the largest actors in the seafood industry to act has been a huge but crucial task. These companies buy fish from every ocean on the planet and their size and influence means they have the potential to set new standards, shift norms and ultimately transform an industry”.

Bengtsson used to say that our oceans were “out of sight and out of mind”, but now her strong feeling is that while much of the ocean is still out of sight, it’s definitely no longer out of mind.

Published: 2021-06-05