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Uniting efforts to address illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in the Pacific

While Pacific leaders gather for the 2023 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions researchers discuss solutions to illegal fishing.
Two vessels on ocean.
A fishing vessel offloads catch to a cold storage vessel. Satellite monitoring can help track the movement of fish between vessels before landing at port. Image credit:

World leaders from the Pacific region and chief executives from hundreds of companies have convened in San Francisco this week for the 2023 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. This gathering of the region’s largest economies has an enormous influence on the Pacific’s future. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is of particular importance for maritime nations along the Pacific Rim. IUU fishing strips an estimated $26-50 billion USD from the global economy every year and undermines the livelihoods of millions of fishers acting responsibly, as well as nations highly dependent on revenue from the seafood trade.

To inform action on the APEC Roadmap on Combatting Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and work by the APEC Ocean and Fisheries Working Group, Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions (COS) researchers have been analyzing vessel behavior and risk factors that can contribute to IUU fishing to work with governments and companies to take action. Here, COS co-director Jim Leape and deputy director Liz Selig discuss how this cross-sector approach can help tackle IUU fishing in the Pacific.


What is currently being done to address IUU fishing, and what can be done to address it more successfully? 

Leape: Many nations, particularly wealthier ones, patrol their waters to catch vessels fishing illegally. However, tackling IUU fishing has been inherently challenging because the ocean is vast, and vessels can escape to international waters known as the High Seas. However, the explosion of ocean technology and data has transformed this space in ways unimaginable just a decade ago. Today, we can track vessels from space and increasingly monitor fishing activities. This real-time information not only enables governments to intervene more effectively but also allows companies to gain insights into the activities of vessels in their supply chains. There is also a growing recognition that intercepting vessels at port is a key strategy to combat IUU fishing. Since every vessel ultimately needs to dock, implementing stringent port controls is crucial for closing the net on IUU fishing activities.

Selig: One of the significant challenges in addressing IUU fishing is the complexity of jurisdictions that include the  Flag States (where a vessel is registered) and Port States (where a vessel brings catches at port) as well as where they fish, whether in another national jurisdiction or the High Seas. One advantage of ports is that they provide clear jurisdiction to enforce regulatory frameworks.  We are currently analyzing where fishing vessels fish and land their catches in the APEC region to identify which governments may need to work more closely on data sharing and enforcement.  We are also engaging with public and private sector partners to determine what kinds of data they need to take action and work together more effectively. 

Delegates at APEC this year have had an opportunity to discuss solutions to IUU fishing in the Pacific. What insights can be drawn from COS research about making those solutions more effective?

Selig: Our work identifies potential incentives and leverage points to strengthen instruments like the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA), which went into effect in 2016 and aims to eliminate IUU fishing by preventing vessels that have fished illegally from landing their catches. We have been part of ongoing technical meetings with APEC’s Oceans and Fisheries Working Group, sharing insights about where IUU fishing risks are highest and identify opportunities for greater cooperation and collaboration among APEC Economies and the private sector to make progress on the fight against IUU fishing. 

Leape: APEC is not a regulatory body but it serves as an important venue for fostering cooperation among APEC Economies on shared concerns. IUU fishing is a challenge that afflicts every country in the Pacific. It has been an important priority for APEC over the last few years. In 2019, APEC adopted a Roadmap to Combat IUU Fishing, reflecting its commitment to making collective progress on ending IUU fishing in the region. A recent report from the Supply Chain Risk Project, a collaboration among COS, Global Fishing Watch, the World Economic Forum’s Friends of Ocean Action, and FishWise, highlights opportunities for APEC Economies to continue closing gaps in vessel data sharing to enhance transparency.

IUU fishing is not only a government challenge. What role can industry actors like seafood companies play? 

Leape: Seafood companies increasingly recognize the threat IUU fishing poses to their businesses, jeopardizing the supply of fish and undermining legitimate fishers who are their suppliers. Leading companies are seeking tools to help them screen out illegally caught fish from their supply chains. The Supply Chain Risk Project aims to do just that. It assembles diverse datasets to illuminate IUU fishing risks in supply chains, allowing companies to gain a clearer picture of their business operations. Companies are demanding more effective regulations. In May, a coalition representing more than 150 companies in the seafood sector released a statement calling on APEC Economies to ratify and fully implement the PSMA and to share the information needed for all APEC Economies to enforce the agreement. Companies have an important role to play in strengthening the capabilities of the PSMA that are important for their businesses. 

How can governments, the seafood industry, and research institutions effectively collaborate to strengthen existing regulations aimed at ending IUU fishing?

Selig: IUU fishing is a complex problem. Ending this challenge requires a collaborative effort involving governments, the seafood industry, and research institutions. Each should leverage its unique strengths – research institutions can contribute expertise in modeling and scenario exploration for interventions, governments can enforce regulations, monitor activities, and foster cooperation with other nations, and the seafood industry can implement solutions along their supply chains.

Leape: Research can illuminate the complexities in the system – for example, where a single vessel may operate under multiple flags, fish in multiple jurisdictions, and offload catch at multiple ports. Armed with this information, governments can cooperate more effectively to identify and intercept vessels that are operating illegally. On the private sector side, research has been important in helping companies understand the implications of IUU fishing and risks in their supply chains. This understanding empowers companies to act, reinforcing and complementing governmental efforts. 

Leape is also the William and Eva Price Senior Fellow in the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and Professor, by courtesy, of Oceans.

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