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IUU Fishing: The Dangers Behind Unsustainable Seafood Practices

Credit: Aman Bhargava | freerange


With an estimated market value of $276.5 billion in 2020 and over 40 million people employed worldwide, the global economy significantly benefits from the fishing industry. In the United States alone, commercial and recreational saltwater fishing “generated $253 billion in sales impacts, contributed $117 billion to gross domestic product, and supported 1.7 million jobs in the U.S. marine fishing sector and across the broader economy” as of 2020. However, as the demand for seafood persists, countries have become increasingly dependent on unethical fishing practices to maintain the supplies necessary for the growing market. Due to weak regulation and enforcement mechanisms of the commercial fishing industry, companies can sidestep the law and acquire a hefty profit since the chances of getting caught are slim to none. Given the low stakes and high rewards of the industry, companies have more incentive to pursue illegal fishing practices and contribute to human rights abuses since these abuses could also drive down the cost of production. This article addresses what illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is, how the practice involves human rights violations, and what the United States, as a global leader in seafood sustainability, is and is not doing to help combat this issue.

What is IUU Fishing? 

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a broad term for various fishing activities. IUU fishing concerns all aspects and stages of the capture and utilization of fish, and it may be associated with organized crime. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines illegal fishing as activities that contravene applicable laws and regulations, including laws and rules adopted at the regional and international levels. Unreported fishing includes fishing activities that are not reported or are misreported to relevant authorities in contravention of national laws and regulations or reporting procedures of an appropriate regional fisheries management organization. Lastly, unregulated fishing occurs in areas or fish stocks for which there are no applicable conservation or management measures, where such fishing activities are conducted in a manner inconsistent with state responsibilities for the conservation of living marine resources under international law. Some IUU fishing examples include fishing without a license or quota for certain species, failing to report catches or making false reports, and conducting unauthorized fish transfers to cargo vessels. 

IUU fishing activities threaten food security and socioeconomic stability around the world, with economically disadvantaged countries most at risk. For example, total catches in West Africa are forty percent higher than reported catches, explicitly circumventing conservation and management measures. If IUU anglers continue to target vulnerable stocks subject to strict management, it will be easier to rebuild those stocks to healthy levels, which would threaten marine biodiversity. Without marine biodiversity, there is a greater risk of food insecurity for communities that rely on fisheries for protein resources and job insecurity for those involved in the fishing sector.

Credit: Keving Chung | pxhere

How IUU Fishing Violates Human Rights 

IUU fishing is closely connected to forced labor abuses and the exploitation of vulnerable workers. This is mainly because longline fishing vessels remain at sea for extended periods, sometimes months or even years, enabling them to evade returning to port while engaging in illegal practices unnoticed. According to Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions, fishing vessels involved in IUU fishing frequently engage in labor abuses, including, but not limited to, “exploitation, forced labor, debt bondage, human trafficking, and modern slavery.” Reports illustrate how workers on fishing vessels endure hazardous and unsanitary conditions, forced to do strenuous manual labor for hours without adequate access to food or water. 

For example, one Chinese state enterprise, Dalian Mengxin Ocean Fisheries, was discovered in 2020 to be involved in extensive human rights violations committed against Ghanaian workers aboard some of its fishing vessels. In addition to the hazardous and deathly living conditions they experienced, the men interviewed claimed they had yet to sign written contracts with their employers, and many were largely unaware of their compensation details or deductions made from their wages. 

Moreover, Human Rights Watch interviewed 248 present and past workers in the fishing sector in 2018, covering topics such as recruitment procedures, wage structures, working hours, occupational safety, and other concerns. Among these individuals, 95 were recognized by Thai authorities or other entities as trafficking victims. The research uncovered 20 instances of forced labor during 34 group and individual interviews with fishermen, encompassing 90 of the 138 interviewed fishermen who remained employed on vessels during the study period.

What Has Been Done to Address This Problem? 

To help identify human rights abuses, nonprofit ocean conservation organization, Oceana, wrote a report that analyzed the activities of vessels with histories of possible IUU fishing, forced labor, or human trafficking to determine behaviors that are associated with a higher risk of IUU fishing and human rights abuses. It detailed how stopping transmission of tracking data, extended time at sea, and port avoidance are all indicators of suspicious activity and how identifying these issues is the first step to establishing increased transparency in the fishing industry.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) urges the United States government to reject illegal fishing and the human rights abuses closely associated with the seafood industry. According to the NRDC, the United States is the world’s largest seafood market. However, as much as one-third of U.S. seafood imports are illegally harvested. In 2019, roughly $2.4 billion worth of seafood entering U.S. markets was harvested from IUU fishing activities. As a result, the NRDC claims that the United States has a strong influence in stopping illegal and unethical fishing practices. To tackle human rights abuses and IUU fishing together, the NRDC suggests that the U.S. government invoke complete supply chain traceability requirements, expand vessel tracking requirements, modernize the U.S. seafood screening process, and require basic information about crew working conditions on fishing vessels to enforce U.S. anti-forced-labor laws.

Currently, the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act and the Seafood Import Monitoring Program are existing laws and regulatory programs to block illegally and unethically fished seafood. Under the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act, NOAA engages in a three-step process of identification, consultation, and certification to aid identified nations in strengthening their fishery laws. Additionally, the Seafood Import Monitoring Program requires importers to provide and report critical data from the point of harvest to entry into U.S. commerce on over 1000 species. Yet, more is needed to combat illegal fishing and human rights violations. Unfortunately, research has revealed that the United States must prepare to effectively prevent IUU-fished and fraudulently labeled shipments from entering the country. However, the NRDC believes that improvement, detection, and interdiction of IUU seafood imports could be possible with better leadership, resources, and coordination.


Although the United States has implemented laws and regulatory programs to manage illegal fishing and human rights violations, the NRDC calls on the U.S. government to wield its leadership and eliminate IUU-fished seafood from its commerce stream. By utilizing its influence, the U.S. government would help stabilize vulnerable stocks to maintain world food security and ensure better employment practices for those in the seafood industry. Therefore, consumers could rely on the labels on their food, knowing it was not harvested with unethical labor practices.

*The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of Santa Clara University.


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