Illegal Fishing Costs Us Billions Every Year. The U.S. Is Finally About To Do Something About It.

In this Nov. 22, 2012 photo, fishermen work to unload a net full of anchovies during a fishing expedition in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of El Callao, Peru. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RODRIGO ABD, FILE
In this Nov. 22, 2012 photo, fishermen work to unload a net full of anchovies during a fishing expedition in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of El Callao, Peru. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RODRIGO ABD, FILE

On Monday, at the commencement of the second annual “Our Ocean” conference in Valparaiso, Chile, President Obama announced in a video new steps to combat illegal fishing and seafood fraud, which the federal government says causes as much as $23 billion in annual losses and widespread environmental harm.

“Building on our actions to keep illegally caught fish from coming into U.S. markets, today we’re announcing new partnerships to empower developing nations to fight illegal fishing in their own waters,” President Obama told Our Ocean attendees.

The newly-launched Sea Scout initiative will identify regional “hotspots” of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing activity. It will also coordinate the identification, interception, and prosecution of perpetrators with other countries’ governments using a combination of new and existing technologies.

The administration said it will continue to develop and enhance those technologies, including infrared imaging tools that can detect the lights and heat signatures of fishing vessels from space. This detection system will launch in several Southeast Asian nations next year, where illegal fishing has taken an outsized toll on small scale fishermen and regional fish stocks. Illegal fishing is increasingly implicated in human trafficking, which pirate fishing vessels engage in to minimize their labor costs.

The United States’ leadership in combating illegal fishing aims to improve the robustness of global fish stocks, 30 percent of which have been over-exploited, and 61 percent of which are fully fished with little capacity to sustain additional fishing pressure. Scientists point out that large and predatory fish like tunas and sharks that strongly influence the health of marine ecosystems have declined by as much as two thirds worldwide, since they are specifically targeted by both legal and illegal fishermen.


Fisheries experts point out that illegal fishing exacerbates the decline of fish stocks because the unreported take muddles fish stock assessments and interferes with the ability of fisheries management efforts to set meaningful catch limits or rebuild stocks. One third of the world population depends on seafood for nutrition, and global consumption has grown steadily since the 1950s.

Illegal fishing contributes to food insecurity, public health hazards, marine ecosystem degradation, and billions in losses from fishermen worldwide.

Even the United States, where fisheries management enforced by the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery and Conservation Act has improved the state of dozens of commercially important fish stocks, is impacted by seafood fraud. An estimated one third of seafood sold domestically is mislabeled, leading to consumption of seafood that may be tied to pirate fishing, or sourced from a country with weak or nonexistent inspection standards. For example, repeated DNA testing by Oceana revealed rampant mislabeling of fish throughout American restaurants and grocery stores. Seafood fraud is therefore thought to both encourage illegal and destructive fishing, and undercut the livelihoods of law-abiding fishermen.

The initiatives announced on Monday at “Our Ocean” follow the Administration’s December 2014 release of a final action plan outlining domestic efforts to tackle illegal fishing, including expanding partnerships to detect violations, improve enforcement, and better track seafood from “bait-to-plate.” A Task Force was convened by President Obama in June 2014 and issued recommendations in March 2015 to combat IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud.

The 2015 Our Ocean conference concluded on Tuesday, October 6th.