• Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is putting fish stocks, human rights and marine ecosystems in peril.
  • Defeating IUU fishing can only be achieved if industry and governments join forces to ensure IUU fishers cannot find buyers or land their catch.
  • Seafood sector leaders have set out a response to the IUU problem, with the key elements being traceability and robust controls at ports.

Around the world, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is putting fish stocks, human rights and marine ecosystems in peril. Largely out of sight, IUU fishers steal millions of tonnes of fish from the ocean each year and take billions of dollars out of national economies. They also pose a threat to the responsible fishers and fishing nations who supply the fish and seafood to markets across the world and that billions rely on for critical protein and nutrition. COVID-19 precautions, which have constrained monitoring and enforcement, have made this threat even more acute. This challenge can only be addressed if players across the seafood sector act in concert.

This is why it is exciting to see a new coalition of seafood industry and sustainability leaders from across the globe join forces to combat illegal fishing and ensure no fish caught illegally ends up on our plates.

The organizations – Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS), the Global Tuna Alliance (GTA), the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), the Global Dialogue for Seafood Traceability (GDST) and the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI) – include more than 150 retailers and seafood companies across the globe. They are brought together by a shared recognition that action to control IUU fishing is fundamentally important to the future of the seafood industry as well as the future health and prosperity of seafood suppliers and customers.

In a joint statement issued on 16 February, these groups declared that we can crack the challenge of IUU fishing if only industry and governments join forces to ensure that IUU fishers cannot find buyers, or even land their catch. Working with the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and the Friends of Ocean Action, these seafood sector leaders set out a response to the IUU problem. The key is traceability, from bait to plate, and robust controls at ports.

Traceability – a catch phrase

To keep IUU catch out of the market, the first priority is to establish real transparency on the provenance of every fish that is bought and sold.

Some parts of the seafood sector have strong traceability systems in place, but much of the sector has remained opaque. It is a complex challenge – seafood is the most heavily traded food commodity in the world, and there are millions of producers, processors and buyers involved. To build a traceability system that spans all those actors, in all parts of the sector, we need to have global standards that specify the information that all will provide – such as catch data, vessel documents and the location of fishing activities – and that ensure all information can be readily shared.

The organizations behind today’s new coalition are all endorsing the groundbreaking new standards developed by the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability (GDST), which will form the foundations for a worldwide system that allows buyers to trace fish from point of origin to point of sale.

These standards define “key data elements” for traceability so that every supply chain participant knows what information they must supply and what information they can expect.

GDST also establishes specifications for IT systems so that data can be transmitted seamlessly across disparate actors. The GDST standards will allow every company across the seafood sector, and every consumer, to know what they’re buying – and, crucially, to be confident it’s legal.

Port control measures

As transparency is improved across supply chains, we must also redouble efforts to ensure that IUU fish do not get into those supply chains in the first place.

It is often difficult to apprehend IUU fishers at sea, but their catch can be intercepted at port. Governments need to implement strong port control measures to ensure that vessels carrying IUU catch are identified and either detained or turned away. They also need to work together – to share information that enables enforcement to be effective and consistent across jurisdictions – so that a vessel turned away from one port cannot find a willing harbour next door.

Fortunately, there is a platform for governments to join forces. A binding UN Food and Agriculture Organization agreement – the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA) – asks all countries to ensure that fish caught illegally cannot land in their ports. As of today, it has been ratified by 66 nations and the European Union.

The organizations joining forces in today’s coalition call on governments to ratify and implement port controls that are aligned with the requirements of the PSMA. They are also calling on them to share information and operational data about their fishing vessels and fishing activities, so that ports can enforce measures effectively.

The 2009 PSMA is the first international, legally binding instrument to target IUU fishing. Entered into force in 2016, it has shown a remarkable rate of adherence.
Image: FAO

Today’s statement makes clear that leading seafood buyers will be paying attention to the measures that ports take to prevent the landing of IUU fish. They are also sending a clear signal that they will increasingly look to source their fish from ports that have implemented measures aligned with the PSMA.

Five years ago, in adopting the Sustainable Development Goals, the 193 Member States of the United Nations committed to bringing an end to IUU fishing. Today, leaders from across the seafood sector are saying that if industry and governments act together – to create transparency across global supply chains and to establish strong controls in ports – they can deliver that goal.