1. Home
  2. Global

Fishy business - the cost of illegal trawling

Fishing communities are often the first to settle on any of the new islands that have emerged off the coast of Bangladesh.
(Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN)

Illegal and unregulated fishing is rampant worldwide, particularly off the coasts of West Africa and the Horn of Africa, and accounts for between US$10 billion and $23 billion of direct losses globally every year, say the authors of the latest report on fisheries and aquaculture by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“Illegal fishing has negative impacts which are biological, environmental, economic and social,” Michele Kuruc, a fisheries expert at FAO, told IRIN via email.

“Much of the world’s fish are harvested from developing countries. In many cases fisheries management regimes - monitoring, control and surveillance systems, enforcement and compliance - are not sufficient in these places, making the fish stocks and communities which depend on them vulnerable.”

Illegal fishing and competition over dwindling resources from large-scale fishing vessels, including those operated by foreign companies without authorization, is one of the major problems facing small-scale fisheries in developing countries.

Small-scale fisheries directly affect the lives of about 357 million people. More than 90 percent of the world’s fishermen play a huge role in improving food security and alleviating poverty, particularly in developing countries, says The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2012 (SOFIA) the flagship FAO report on the industry.

A joint study by FAO, WorldFish Centre and World Bank, released in 2012, found that more than half (54 percent) of capture fisheries production in marine and inland waters (excluding aquaculture) was contributed by small-scale fisheries.


Overfishing - also an effect of illegal fishing - in their home waters has affected a large number of small fishing communities.

Top 5 African producers of bred fish in 2010

Many of the marine fish stocks monitored by FAO are under great pressure and the latest statistics available indicate that almost 30 percent are overexploited - a slight decrease from the previous two years. About 57 percent are fully exploited (i.e. at or very close to their maximum sustainable production) and only about 13 percent are non-fully exploited.

“Overexploitation not only causes negative ecological consequences, but it also reduces fish production, which leads to negative social and economic consequences,” the report notes. “To increase the contribution of marine fisheries to the food security, economies and the well-being of coastal communities, effective management plans must be put in place to rebuild overexploited stocks,” the authors suggest.

Countries have taken various steps to reduce overfishing, including limiting fleet sizes, reducing the number of fishing days, discouraging or prohibiting damaging fishing practices, introducing harvesting quota systems, and reserving inshore areas for exclusive use by small-scale fishing craft and gear.

Top 5 Asian producers of bred fish in 2010

“The prevention, deterrence and elimination of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU fishing) remains a significant challenge for many countries, especially developing countries, and is often a precondition for departments of fisheries to pursue sustainable small-scale fisheries policies because of the intrusion of large-scale vessels into coastal fishing grounds,” Rolf Willmann, a senior fisheries expert at FAO, told IRIN via email.

“Considerable success has been possible in countries like the Philippines, where municipal waters are reserved for small-scale fisheries and government is promoting co-management arrangements between local government entities, civil society organizations and fishing communities. In small island states in the Pacific, many successful examples can be found of local level management of small-scale fisheries drawing on customary rights and traditions.”

Secure fishing rights

The report’s authors also suggest that more secure access and tenure rights for poor communities over their fishing grounds, in line with the recently adopted Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security, would help alleviate some of the problems.

More on illegal fishing
 CONGO: High-tech measures to curb illegal fishing
 SOMALIA: Fishermen driven from the sea by illegal trawlers
 AFRICA: And then there were no fish
 GUINEA: Illegal international fishing impoverishes local fishermen
 Sinking islands

“More secure fishing rights will motivate the communities to exert greater stewardship over the health of the fishery resources and promote co-management,” said Tina Farmer of the FAO via email. “The communities need further support to ensure that fish harvested is not wasted due to spoilage, or the inability to deliver fish in time to the market,” she wrote.

“Guiding principles and good practices for securing sustainable small-scale fisheries will be contained in a set of international guidelines that FAO is currently developing through a wide-ranging multi-stakeholder consultation process with governments, civil society organizations, fish-workers’ organizations and academia,” she said.

The SOFIA 2012 report reveals that a record 128 million tons of fish for human consumption was produced in 2010 - an average of 18.4kg per person - providing more than 4.3 billion people with about 15 percent of their animal protein intake.

While Asia accounted for two-thirds of the total consumption (85.4 million tons, 20.7kg per capita), people in Africa consumed the least amount of fish (9.1 million tons, 9.1 kg per capita). In some important fish producing countries like South Africa, Congo, Gabon and Malawi, fish consumption has remained static or declined.

The main reason for the decline in per capita fish consumption in some sub-Saharan countries is because production has not kept pace with population growth, said Stefania Vannuccini, an expert at FAO.

The economic slowdown in 2009 has also affected African imports of fish and fishery products, but the global fish trade is showing signs of a rebound. But fish prices have been climbing since the beginning of 2012, and the rising costs of energy and fish feed will keep them high. 


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

It was The New Humanitarian’s investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation that uncovered sexual abuse by aid workers during the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo and led the World Health Organization to launch an independent review and reform its practices.

This demonstrates the important impact that our journalism can have. 

But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking. 

We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone.

The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and shine a light on similar abuses. 

Become a member today and support independent journalism

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.