Fish too tasty to be legal? They could well be illegal

Recently, a group of scientists with the conservation group Oceana asked, ‘Just how big of a problem is illegal fishing?’ They asked how many fish are illegally caught. And how does it affect our oceans?

We do not often think of crime as something people commit against wildlife or the environment, but people commit crimes against nature every day. Poachers are killing elephants in Africa for their ivory tusks and in the ocean some fishermen are stealing fish.  A minority of the fishermen commit the majority of the crime. These illegal fishermen [often called ‘pirates’] catch more than they are supposed to, fish in areas they aren’t supposed to fish, and do not report their catches.

Vessel suspected of illegal fishing activity. Credit: U.S. Navy

The scientists compared reported fish catches around the globe with actual seafood sales to estimate the amount of fish caught illegally.

What they found is that seafood sales are much greater than reported fish catches. They found that illegal catches account for at least 1/5 of our seafood! And they estimate that the amount of stolen seafood each year is worth $10-23 billion dollars. This means illegal fishing takes away large sums of money from honest fishermen.

The scientists also found that illegal fishing often harms the most vulnerable and depleted fish species, like sharks, bluefin tuna, and Chilean sea bass. Illegal fishermen often target these species because they fetch a high price. They found that illegal fishermen kill 3-4 sharks for every one legally caught shark.  And that fishermen actually catch 5-10 times more bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass than reported. These illegal catches undermine conservation efforts to protect these species.

The scientists show that the most illegal fishermen likely commit crimes against the ocean for the money. Illegal fishermen make huge profits off their catches – upwards of $1 million dollars. Meanwhile when we catch illegal fishermen, we only penalize them a small fraction of these profits. Thus the reward far outweighs the risk.

Stack of fish believed to be illegally caught. Credit: U.S. Navy

Bluefin tuna, one of the species most affected by illegal fishing. Credit: NOAA









So the question is, ‘What can we do to stop illegal fishermen and fish stealing?’

Well for starters we must substantially increase the penalties for illegal fishing. And we must find ways to prevent illegal fishermen from selling their catch and making a profit. [Increase the risk and reduce the reward.]

Scientists say that improving seafood traceability – documenting and tracking the fish every step of the way from the boat to our plate – could keep illegal catches off the market. Some seafood retailers and restaurants have already been implementing seafood traceability programs which track who caught the fish, where it was caught, and how.  This type of tracking not only ensures the seafood is legal; it also helps prevent seafood fraud or mislabeling. And it gives you piece of mind about what you are buying!

In the U.S., congress has recently introduced several bills that would help address illegal fishing, by raising penalties for illegal fishing activity  and requiring that we track ALL seafood sold in the U.S.  from the boat to the plate. So tell your congressmen/women to pass these bills!

You can also help reduce demand for depleted and vulnerable species that are often a target of illegal fishing, by choosing to buy and eat only sustainable seafood [and telling your friends to do the same].

Of course we will need global cooperation to stop illegal fishing. Some scientists have suggested we use criminology techniques  to identify global illegal fishing ‘hotspots’ and ‘hot products’ and focus efforts in these areas. The European Union and the United States have joined together to fight illegal fishing. And a group of southeast African countries has banned together to crack down on illegal fishing in the Indian Ocean. These efforts are already paying off. Hopefully more countries will ban together in this fight.

For the sake of our oceans and the future of our fisheries, it is time for us all to step up and help put an end to fish stealing!


To learn more about the problems our fisheries face and what you can do to help, check out our Fish as Food  page.


Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.

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