Illegal fishing threatens food supplies, livelihoods

U.S. Coast Guard helicopter flying over fishing vessel (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer Jonathan R. Cilley)
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter flies over a vessel suspected of illegal fishing in the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer Jonathan R. Cilley)

The U.S. is renewing its commitment to combating illegal fishing globally to protect dwindling fish populations and defend the livelihoods of the world’s fishermen.

The U.S. departments of State and Commerce and numerous other federal agencies in June launched an effort to implement a law that advances a “whole-of-government” strategy to fight illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing globally.

The Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement Act, enacted in December, directs U.S. diplomatic and law enforcement efforts to build international capacity to fight IUU fishing in regions where it is most prevalent.

President Trump issued an executive order May 7 reaffirming the nation’s commitment to fighting IUU fishing and calling for increased enforcement.

“Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing undermines the sustainability of American and global seafood stocks, negatively affects general ecosystem health, and unfairly competes with the products of law-abiding fishermen and seafood industries around the world,” Trump said.

The order calls for the U.S. to strengthen implementation of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing with more than 65 international partners to prevent illegally caught fish from entering the global market.

The president’s order builds on long-standing U.S. efforts to fight IUU fishing, which threatens the livelihoods of more than 3 billion people worldwide who rely on fishing for work or food.

U.S. Coast Guard cutter sailing near two fishing vessels, with a response boat in foreground (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer Jonathan R. Cilley)
A U.S. Coast Guard cutter takes two vessels into custody for suspected use of illegal fishing equipment in the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer Jonathan R. Cilley)

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) invests more than $33 million in roughly 15 countries around the world each year to support sustainable fishing and preserve marine ecosystems.

In October, USAID committed $7.5 million to help Pacific Island nations fight IUU fishing in their exclusive economic zones. USAID has also funded monitoring equipment to help fishers in the Philippines show their catch is legal, ensuring they can sell on the international market.

Yet IUU fishing remains a persistent problem. The FAO estimates that IUU fishing may account for as much as 26 million tons of fish caught each year. IUU fishing can be fishing without a license, taking undersized or threatened fish, or unauthorized transferring of fish to large cargo vessels.

In August, Ecuador objected to a fleet of 260 ships, mostly Chinese, fishing in international waters near the Galápagos Islands, one of the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems. In 2017, Ecuador seized a Chinese vessel in the Galápagos marine reserve that was carrying 300 tons of wildlife, mostly sharks.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo August 2 called on the People’s Republic of China to stop subsidizing fleets that fish illegally and violate the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of coastal states.

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries officials said June 5 that many countries are increasing efforts to police illegal fishing.

“The good news is fishing authorities from nations around the world are stepping up internal oversight of their fleets,” said NOAA Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Fisheries Drew Lawler. “While we’re making progress, there remains much work to be done.”