Illegal Fishing Is Pushing Ocean Ecosystems Toward Collapse

Satellite tracking allows you to track each fishing vessel as it searches the oceans in search of fewer and smaller fish. Each ship crosses the paths of others until the oceans start to resemble their fishing nets. Within this tangled web, the paths of two vessels caught the attention of the investigative team at my organization, the Environmental Justice Foundation — their strange, parallel movements didn’t look right.

This accidental observation, which was unremarkable to most people, was the beginning of a year-long investigation that exposed the problem. Israr fleet — three vessels illegally fishing for tuna, damaging our already over-exploited ocean ecosystems, threatening the food security and livelihoods of coastal communities, and using every means possible to evade detection. These vessels and others similar to them illegally fish for tuna, often indiscriminately, exceeding local fishers, and putting at stake the food security and livelihoods over 100 million people who rely upon small-scale fishing.

The operator who controlled this fleet knew how the system worked. They knew the chronic lack of transparency, communication and accountability across the global fishing sector could be used to their advantage to keep the fleet’s illegal and destructive activities off the radar.

They are by no means the first to notice and exploit this weakness — the systemic lack of transparency across global fisheries is one of the most significant enablers of illegal fishing around the world. Authorities are forced to make poor decisions about which vessels are allowed to fish in their waters because they don’t have access to crucial information like records of illegal activity, ownership records, and fishing authorization. Insufficient data flow prevents cooperation between NGOs, governments, and regional fishing authorities who are working to apprehend illicit fishermen. It also makes illegal fishing much easier to thrive. It also creates an environment where human rights abuses flourish without oversight or escape.

There are many tried-and tested strategies that exploit flaws in the system. They were all known by the owner of Israr’s fleet.

Practiced deception

Ships float on the ocean
Israr 1 & 2 taken by a crew member aboard Israr 3

All fishing vessels must sail under the flag and abide by the laws in that country. The Israr fleet not only went “stateless” for a time, illegally sailing under no flag, the sailors repeatedly changed their flags. Swapping flags may not be illegal, but it is used by illegal operators to create confusion around who is responsible for monitoring and sanctioning the vessel, or to adopt a flag of a state they know simply can’t or won’t monitor their operations and enforce laws and regulations. They can continue their criminal activities without stopping, causing havoc in the oceans and decimating the fish population.

The owners also changed the names of the vessels. Crew switched digital ID codes mid-voyage, and the crew painted the name on each vessel’s side with bright white paint. Because of our disjointed system, this tactic is only effective. The universal vessel identification system does not apply to all fishing boats, not all countries have national vessels identification programs for non-eligible ships, and many of these registry are not publicly accessible to check illegal acts against vessels. There is currently no truly universal, openly available system of vessel identification — a unique number or code, a so-called unique vessel identifier (UVI) — that stays with each vessel from shipyard to scrapyard, regardless of name or flag changes. It is nearly impossible to find out the illegal history of a vessel and hold its owners and operators responsible.

Trans-shipment was also a common activity for the Israr fleet. This involves meeting other vessels at sea to move crew, supplies, or catch. This can be done legally, but it has become a common tactic used by illegal operators to hide their tracks. It allows them to “launder” fish caught illegally and perpetuate the abuse and enslavement of crew by enabling vessels to stay away from port for months or even years.

Migrant workers are an example. Korea’s distant water fishing fleetReports of being forced to work 18 hours per day were common. We spoke to a quarter of our crew who had suffered physical abuse, while over 60% had experienced verbal abuse. Almost all had their passports confiscated by their captain and several months’ wages deducted at the start of contracts to discourage them from escaping these abusive environments. These vessels remained at sea for more then a year, in some cases for over 18 months, with no calls at ports.

A Lucky Observation

It took nearly a year of investigation before a case was made against the Israr fleet. But it paid off. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas blacklisted the fleet in December 2021. It was a significant blow for this illegal network. This will prevent the fleet selling any fish they catch if it is properly implemented.

We cheered this small victory the Environmental Justice Foundation — one less fleet abusing the system and damaging our oceans. But what about next vessel?

A determined, observant NGO captured the Israr fishing fleet by chance. Global illegal fishing operations are being criticized 26 million tonnes of fishEach year, this approach will barely scratch it. We can’t afford to continue this hit-or miss approach.

Systemic Change

We need a system that works for us, not for them — a system built on transparency. We can protect the ocean from these destructive fleets by opening up data flow between countries and making vessel license lists, history and ownership details public.

This systemic shift is necessary at an international scale. We worked with the Israr investigation only, as well as fishing authorities in Belize and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. This is the level we need for international data-sharing.

Although this may sound daunting, bringing fisheries out from the shadows doesn’t require expensive, new technology or a lot of money. It is possible to achieve it by any country using a combination of public information-sharing, enforcement and enforcement of sustainable fisheries laws and the use existing technology to understand and map supply chains.

Millions of people, especially coastal communities, will be affected by the failure to implement this change. They are particularly vulnerable if they depend on flourishing fisheries for their survival. Already we are seeing the effects of apathy in Ghana where the fundamental human rights of all people are being violated. Ghanaian fishing communities are being threatened by the government’s failure to tackle overfishing and illegal fishing by industrial trawlers. Over half of 215 small-scale processors, fishers, and traders that we spoke to reported not having enough food in the past year and more than 70% reported a decline or worsening in their lives over the last five years. The vast majority, if not operating under the Ghanaian flag but are controlled and funded by distant water fishing firms based in China.

Illegal fishing is threatening ocean ecosystems and threatening millions of people’s livelihoods and food security. This is a shameful international fact that these crimes can be evaded by a chronic lack of transparency. Only international cooperation can bring fishing out the shadows, and restore our oceans to their rightful glory.