IUU Fishing: The True Cost of the Fish on Your Plate

Picture of a seine fishing boat capturing large amount of fish with a dragnet

By Xu Qifei 

| In recent years there have been rising concerns on the ways we raise cattle being incredibly water intensive and inhumane at best. Some conscientious consumers are moving away from beef consumption and switching their main protein source to fish, the industry surrounding which is free of those particular problems. But if I tell you that illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, which takes up a large proportion of the fish we consume daily, leads to massive human trafficking problems, starvation of huge population in the Global South and various irreversible environmental problems, would you still think consuming more fish is a good idea?

Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, or IUU for short, has been causing a series of problems that are extremely resistant to enforcement, causing $23.5 billion of loss worldwide every year. Its environmental damage has been known to us for a long time. With 84 percent of the world fish stocks already fully exploited, overexploited or depleted by fishing industries, IUU pushes things over the edge. Unregulated pirate ships and opportunistic fishermen catching in illegal territories constitute only a limited portion of IUU in the world. Much of unreported fishing is done by legitimate fishing vessels. The most common type of unreported fishing is bycatch, which refers to non-targeted species being caught during the fishing process, and it has resulted in enormous amount of unnecessary marine life loss. For instance, the average discard rate of shrimp trawling in the world is 5.7:1, which means 1 pound of fish die for every 6 pounds of shrimps we capture. Many marine species have severely been endangered because of bycatch, including sea turtles, dolphins and albatross.

However, there are darker secrets of IUU that are not known to most people. In a study carried out by United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime in 2011 called “Transnational Organized Crime in the Fishing Industry”, a variety of human rights violations and methods of human trafficking are revealed, and the paper commented that “perhaps the most disturbing finding of the study was the severity of the abuse of fishers trafficked for the purpose of forced labor on board fishing vessels. These practices can only be described as cruel and inhumane treatment in the extreme… A particularly disturbing facet of this form of exploitation is the frequency of trafficking in children in the fishing industry.” The paper also pointed out that illicit drug trafficking is also a prominent phenomenon among illegal fishing vessels.

The impacts of IUU on the Global South have been especially catastrophic. For instance, West Africa suffers disproportionately from illegal fishing, annually losing over $1.3 billion worth of fish to it. IUU left millions of people with small fragile fish stocks and a run-down job market. It imperils the main source of protein of their population, threatens a quarter of their jobs and trade, and destroys their communities.

How are we responsible for all these abominations, one might ask. Just in 2012 alone, it is estimated that consumers in the United States spent $82.6 billion for fishery products, of which more than 90 percent is actually imported. The primary reason why we imported so much of our seafood was that fishery goods are cheaper when captured by countries from the Global South which are far much less likely to monitor and enforce fishing regulations. Africa has been the prime victim of IUU particularly because of this. What’s worse, it’s been indicated by United Nations that there might be corruption in the fishing licensing and control system, leading to foreign corporate entities operating ships with flags registered under developing countries unable or unwilling to enforce their criminal jurisdiction. This means that a lot of these so-called imported fishery products are in fact caught by vessels from developed countries flying flags of developing countries, and these illegal procedures are left neglected and uninvestigated when the goods are imported. Make no mistake. We knowingly chose to ignore the IUU that goes on in the fishing industries, just like how we knowingly chose to outsource so much basic industrial manufacturing to the Global South where countries don’t have the capability or intention to tackle issues regarding human rights and the environment.

The effects of IUU show us once more that the living standards we are enjoying have been, not figuratively, not hyperbolically, but truly, at the devastating expense of so many others’ well-being. There is no doubt that fishery regulations and enforcement need to be improved. But more importantly, we have to recognize that industries surrounding IUU are only there because of our infinite need of consumption. We have to realize there is no simple responsible alternative for consumption left. Our only responsible option is to start consuming less.


Image: Chilean Seine Fishing

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