The ocean is a lawless frontier. Nation states hold jurisdiction over waters within 200 miles of their coasts, but for many countries, effective control of those waters is a practical impossibility. And outlaws caught red-handed easily escape to the safety of the high seas.

Illegal fishing has long plagued the world’s oceans, undermining economic development, national security, food security and human rights – and nowhere is this more starkly evident than in the Pacific.

The dimensions of lawlessness at sea are brought vividly to life in Ian Urbina’s powerful new book, The Outlaw Ocean. After four years of deeply courageous reporting, Urbina brings readers onto pirate ships pillaging the seas under the cover of flags of convenience, corruption and the sheer vastness of the ocean. He confronts captains and crewmasters reputed to have brutalized and killed fishermen conscripted onto their boats.

Urbina illuminates the consequences of lawlessness. They are sometimes quirky – such as a British adventurer who has declared a sovereign nation on a retired artillery platform. And they’re sometimes even altruistic – like the physician who takes women to sea on her small sailboat to provide abortion services forbidden on land.

But often the consequences are devastating: men lured from their villages by promises of income for their families are trapped on ships far from home, working in horrific conditions and beaten or thrown overboard if they falter or protest. Ghost trawlers cruise the globe, serially pillaging fisheries of small island states and poor coastal communities without fear of repercussion.

These outrages are a global crisis, and the Pacific Ocean is at the heart of it. A new study commissioned by the World Resources Institute estimates half of the marine resources entering illegal international trading networks come from the Pacific, totaling between 3.7 and 7.2 million tons of fish stolen from fishermen and coastal nations.

Map showing how much fish is illegally taken from the Pacific Ocean
Tonnage of illegal fish traded in the Pacific
Image: World Resources Institute

And the cost is high – with Pacific nation economies robbed of billions of dollars every year. The study shows gross revenue loss of up to $8.3 billion is compounded by the economic impact across the value chain, up to $21 billion.

Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing vessels are also a threat to national security. They’re often trafficking drugs, arms and people, and flagrantly violating basic human rights and environmental standards. The effects on families robbed of livelihoods, food and sometimes even their loved ones are devastating.

How to end illegal fishing

But now, for the first time, the world is in a position to bring the plague of illegal fishing to an end.

Technology is bringing fishing into the light. Global Fishing Watch and similar efforts use satellites to track boats on the water, detecting where they’re fishing and even how. Enabled by artificial intelligence, video cameras on boats will soon be able to monitor what they catch.

Capitalizing on these breakthroughs, global seafood industry leaders are taking action to screen illegal fish out of their supply chains. In the Tuna Traceability Declaration, 66 companies pledged to only buy tuna that can be traced back to a specific trip of a specific boat, by the end of 2020. The Global Tuna Alliance and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation are seeing these commitments through to action. SeaBOS, a coalition of the 10 largest seafood companies in the world, is pursuing traceability for all seafood the coalition’s members buy. And these companies are calling on governments to do their part, as well.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our oceans cover 70% of the world’s surface and account for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without healthy oceans - but they're more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our oceans means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

The good news is that success does not depend on chasing down illegal boats on the high seas. Governments can cut off the lifelines of the illegal fishing industry if they prevent vessels from landing their illegal catch.

A UN Agreement – the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) – asks all countries to ensure fish taken illegally cannot land in their ports. To succeed, it requires a concerted effort by port states across the region, and the “flag” states whose boats operate there.

The first priority is ratification. Most members of the Asia-Pacific economic forum APEC have ratified PSMA; the other eligible economies need to join them. And each state must establish effective controls in its own ports and for the fleets carrying its flag.

The next priority is to share information. Of the several thousand vessels operating in the Pacific, only 240 are registered on the UN’s Global Record. To enforce controls, a port must have basic information about each fishing vessel in the region, so when a boat arrives into port, they know who owns it, where it is flagged, and where, when and how it’s allowed to fish. Ports also must be able to access the data from each country’s Vessel Monitoring System, which provides a detailed account of where each boat has been and what it’s been doing. Several countries, including Indonesia, Chile and Peru, are making VMS data public through Global Fishing Watch. Other countries should follow suit.

Then, the key is working together. Port states must establish open channels for communications, so they can alert one another when a suspect boat is approaching, and coordinate action to ensure it has no place to land.

Finally, the 21 APEC member economies must support implementation of port state measures in other Pacific nations, including the small island developing states with the most at stake. Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine has called on her peers to join forces to end illegal fishing by 2023. On behalf of the island nations of the Pacific, the Forum Fisheries Agency has been putting in place an increasingly robust set of port state measures, along with broader measures to regulate fisheries across the region. The APEC member economies can help ensure those efforts have the financial and technical resources to be successful.

The Government of Chile, which was to host the APEC summit this year but had to cancel due to its internal political situation, has been a champion for action on illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. Under its leadership, APEC ministers have adopted a Roadmap for Combatting IUU Fishing.

By the time heads of state gather for APEC Malaysia 2020, they must be well on the way to ensuring an end to this scourge of the ocean.