Climate and Nature

It’s time for governments to crack down on illegal fishing in the Pacific. Here’s how

A pot filled with anchovies is seen aboard a fishing boat at the Pacific Ocean, off of Peru's northern port of Chimbote, December 14, 2012. Peru is the world's top fishmeal exporter, producing about a third of worldwide supply. Last year it shipped abroad more than $2 billion in fishmeal and fish oil. The anchovy pulled from Peru's Pacific Ocean is sold as fishmeal that feeds pigs in China and farmed salmon in Europe. It's also squeezed into increasingly popular Omega-3 supplements. The government cut its quota for this summer's anchovy season by 68 percent to 810,000 tonnes, the smallest allowance in 25 years. Picture taken December 14, 2012. REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil (PERU - Tags: ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY) illegal fishing

Illegal fishing threatens the food and livelihoods that the Pacific provides for millions of people Image: REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil

Jim Leape
Core Team, Blue Food Assessment; Member of Friends of Ocean Action; Co-Director, Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions
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Climate and Nature

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  • Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing costs the global economy an estimated $26 billion to $50 billion a year.
  • Since the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA) came into effect seven years ago, there is now a promising path for countries to play a role in the fight against IUU fishing, including in the world's largest ocean, the Pacific.
  • But governments must ensure that essential information on each vessel – information on ownership and registration, fishing licences and fishing activities – is publicly available to make progress in the fight against IUU.

Illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing accounts for one in every five fish caught around the world and costs the global economy between $26 billion and $50 billion annually. Fishing vessels engaged in these, largely out of sight, illegal activities have also been linked to organized crime and human rights violations such as forced labour, debt bondage, human trafficking and modern slavery.

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This year, a pair of promising regional opportunities could progress tackling this challenge in the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific, which provides food and livelihoods for millions of people. IUU fishing undermines these benefits and the sustainable development of the region.

The G7 Hiroshima Summit in May 2023 can put a global spotlight on illegal fishing and help set a course for the Asia Pacific Economy Cooperation (APEC) Summit in November 2023, where the region’s 21 largest economies will convene. A coalition of leaders in the seafood sector is calling on governments to drive implementation of measures that can help close the Pacific Ocean to IUU fishing.

The crucial instrument is the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA), which came into effect in 2016. The PSMA aims to eliminate IUU fishing by preventing vessels that have fished illegally from landing their catch. As of today, 74 States and the European Union are parties to the agreement. The crucial challenge, however, is ensuring broad and robust implementation of these measures, so that IUU vessels have nowhere to sell illegally caught fish.

Parties to the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA)
Parties to the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA) Image: FAO, United Nations Geospatial

Research suggests the PSMA has the potential to make a difference. A study led by the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions mapped the regions and ports at highest risk for labour abuse and illegal fishing. This highlighted two main risk factors: a vessel’s “flag State” or the country that a vessel is registered to and the type of fishing gear the vessel has onboard. Promisingly, the study found that though port risks are pervasive around the world, in the year after the PSMA took effect, risky vessels slowed down visits to countries that had ratified PSMA measures compared to countries that did not.

Robust implementation of the PSMA is impeded, however, by the lack of timely, reliable information on each vessel and its activities at sea. A recent report by the Friends of Ocean Action and partners found that although the international community has established global platforms to share the information needed for PSMA enforcement, many countries have failed to provide that information on their own vessels. Friends of Ocean Action and its partners have created the Supply Chain Risk Project to allow companies to identify and address risks in their supply chains and ultimately prevent illegally caught products from reaching the market.

However, companies cannot succeed in addressing IUU fishing on their own unless governments have done what they agreed to do. That means ensuring, for example, that essential information on each vessel – information on ownership and registration, fishing licences and fishing activities – is publicly available.


Inspired by this research, seafood sector leaders are calling for governments attending the G7 Hiroshima Summit and APEC Summit in 2023 to take action. Six groups – the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability, Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative, Global Tuna Alliance, International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, Sea Pact and Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship – have released a statement that calls on countries to ratify and fully implement the PSMA and to share the information needed for all countries to enforce the agreement. Facilitated by the World Economic Forum’s Ocean Action Agenda and the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, this coalition includes more than 150 companies in the seafood sector. It is a striking demonstration of the fact that when it comes to IUU, good business and good government are fully aligned.

In the statement, the coalition recognizes the opportunity for action in Pacific waters, particularly among APEC economies. Not only do APEC governments hold significant economic influence (representing over 60% of global GDP) many have already stepped up to address the challenge of IUU fishing. Of 21 APEC economies, 14 have ratified the PSMA; and China, the biggest fishing nation, has indicated that it will do so by 2025. In addition, regional fisheries management organizations, already in operation across the Pacific, are coordinating on consistent port state measures. This growing regional commitment from influential nations of the Pacific increases the chance that vessels fishing illegally will get caught when they return to port.

The Asian Pacific and the Atlantic off the coast of West Africa are are the places where illegal fishing is causing the biggest revenue losses for local economies
Where is illegal fishing causing the biggest revenue losses for local economies? Image: Statista

Since the PSMA came into effect seven years ago, there is now a promising path for countries to play a role in the fight against IUU fishing. If governments now step up to implement the measures they’ve agreed to and work together across the Pacific to align their efforts, they can safeguard the livelihoods of fishers who are playing by the rules and ensure the sustainability of Pacific fisheries for years to come.

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