Nature and Biodiversity

How Pacific countries can harness data sharing to drive down illegal fishing

A key reason for the lack of progress in combating IUU fishing is the current underutilization of international instruments and mechanisms put in place to help prevent it.

A key reason for the lack of progress in combating IUU fishing is the current underutilization of international instruments and mechanisms put in place to help prevent it. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

Jim Leape
Core Team, Blue Food Assessment; Member of Friends of Ocean Action; Co-Director, Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions
Atsushi Sunami
President, Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Japan, Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Member of Friends of Ocean Action
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  • Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing harms coastal communities, impacts food security, undermines sustainable fisheries, and costs the global economy $26-$50 billion every year.
  • International instruments aimed at stopping IUU fishing – including the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) and FAO data-sharing platforms – already exist but are inadequately implemented and underused, largely due to critical data gaps.
  • A recent report recommends three steps that governments and the seafood industry can take to improve fisheries transparency and stop vessels engaged in IUU fishing from accessing ports and markets.

The world is currently lagging on its commitments to combat Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Global efforts failed to meet Sustainable Development Goal target 14.4 to end IUU fishing by 2020, and – although it entered into force in 2016 – the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) needs more effective implementation to live up to its potential to stop vessels that are fishing illegally from landing their catch. As a result, all regions of the ocean continue to be impacted by IUU fishing. It is a destructive, pernicious practice that harms vulnerable communities and ecosystems, accounts for one in every five fish caught, and imposes an estimated annual global economic toll of $26-$50 billion. Governments and the seafood industry need to take urgent, collective action to address it.

Empowering this action is the goal of the Supply Chain Risk Project (SCRP), a joint initiative by the World Economic Forum’s Friends of Ocean Action, Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, Global Fishing Watch, and FishWise. Our recently launched Transparency Review delves into the shadows of this elusive global challenge to expose critical gaps in fisheries data. The report also proposes steps that governments and industry can take to close these gaps – and optimize the ability of international instruments and mechanisms to prevent IUU fishing. This action would in turn safeguard the livelihoods of millions of fishers who are playing by the rules.

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Leaders from across the Pacific region have shown promising ambition to spearhead global efforts to tackle IUU fishing. Representatives of the Pacific region’s 21 biggest economies stated their commitment to implementing the PSMA in November 2023 at the close of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation APEC Summit in San Francisco.

APEC already has a Roadmap on Combatting Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and it is a high priority for many APEC members, 14 of which have so far ratified the PSMA. If APEC mobilizes as a block, coordinated action by states and industry across the world’s biggest ocean region will make it much harder for vessels engaged in IUU fishing to land and sell their catch.

Strong leadership in the Pacific – the world’s biggest ocean region – is critical in continuing to build the momentum needed to fight IUU fishing globally.

Enabling fisheries' transparency

A key reason for the lack of progress in combating IUU fishing is the current underutilization of international instruments and mechanisms put in place to help prevent it. The Transparency Review found that existing FAO data-sharing platforms – such as the Global Record and the (currently in pilot phase) Global Information Exchange System (GIES) – hold significant potential to help eliminate IUU fishing, but many APEC economies are not using these platforms effectively or supplying data on their own vessels. These platforms can only work if they provide the type and quality of information that companies need to trace their supply chains.

Most of the companies we surveyed for the Transparency Review also indicated that they are not interacting with these data-sharing platforms. Instead, they depend on government- issued vessel lists to collect or verify vessel information, but these lists are often not widely available, sufficiently detailed, or up-to-date. Companies stressed that governments need to increase their enforcement of existing conventions and regulations, and to give them access to official IUU fishing vessel lists. Without this, the seafood industry faces challenges in identifying which vessels are engaging in IUU fishing and eliminating them from supply chains.

Coordinated engagement with the FAO data-sharing platforms by APEC economies and industry would improve transparency and help close ports to IUU fishing vessels.

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APEC economies can lead against IUU fishing

It is not just SCRP partners who are highlighting an opportunity for APEC economies to mobilize against IUU fishing – the seafood industry is also uniting to call for leadership. In May 2023, a “Metacoalition” of six coalitions with over 150 participating seafood companies sent “A Call for Action to Combat IUU Fishing in the Pacific”, asking APEC economies “to commit to robust, coordinated and consistent implementation of Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA)” and ensure all ports are equipped with the tools needed to block illegally caught fish.

The three essential pathways for APEC and all global governments and the seafood industry to unite behind are: collaboration, optimization and streamlining of data, and strong leadership.

3 next steps for collective action

APEC economies can lead the charge in the world’s biggest ocean region by collaborating with industry and taking collective action to make it harder for IUU vessels to operate. Essential next steps are:

  • APEC economies should align with industry by making key vessel identification data available on the FAO Global Record and actively joining the full operationalization of the PSMA Global Information Exchange System (GIES).
  • Data-sharing should be streamlined through improved data standardization and interoperability to address capacity and enforcement needs of industry and APEC economies, and support broader verification efforts to improve risk identification and mitigation.
  • Industry leaders and APEC economies should engage with FAO to communicate specific user needs in order to foster Global Record improvements, promote integration into data workflows, and support operationalization of GIES.

These collective actions will help foster the robust collaboration between APEC economies and the seafood industry needed to boost fisheries transparency, implement the PSMA, and combat the IUU fishing that’s harming our ocean, our economies, and vulnerable coastal communities across the world.

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