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The Continued Misuse of the term “IUU Fishing”

January 3, 2015

I spent some time today catching up on my ocean news and I caught a couple interesting examples of misuse of the term “IUU fishing”. Once again, I see the common use of the term equates it with “illegal fishing”, which as I’ve discussed before, is completely incorrect. The term encompasses both legal and illegal fishing, and I’d argue that this terminological morass is not good for anyone.

The first example comes from Seafood Source, a leader in seafood news, as it presents the top stories of 2014:

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, also known as pirate fishing, remains a perennial problem, in part because the offending fishermen come from foreign countries that are uninterested or incapable of doing anything about it. IUU boats violate protected zone regulations. This puts fish stocks in danger, and also runs the risk of taking food from the mouths of artisanal fishermen in developing countries. Since the rest of the fishing industry abides by these regulations, IUU boats have an unfair competitive advantage, too, one that is measured in billions of U.S. dollars per year.

The second comes from the House of Ocean, a non-profit “dedicated to promoting and facilitating compliance with fisheries conservation law and regulation”. Quoting the information page on IUU fishing:

Because of its furtive nature, IUU fishing undermines measures to manage fisheries sustainably, directly affecting law-abiding fisheries actors that compete for the same stock whilst bearing more of the regulatory and financial burden.


Typical IUU fishing behaviours include fishing without a valid licence, not recording or communicating catch data, fishing in restricted areas, targeting unauthorised species, using banned gear, falsifying or concealing the vessel’s identity or itinerary, obstructing the work of inspectors or enforcers, targeting undersized fish, engaging in unauthorised transhipments, participating in fishing or fisheries support activities with vessels in an IUU black list or  operating in breach of the conservation and management measures of Regional Fisheries Management Organisations.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2015 11:43 am

    Agree with you, but once you dub the activity “pirate fishing,” which happened early in the game, you are on that path. And how does a journalist (not a lawyer, regulator, or bureaucrat) parse the nuances of “unregulated, unreported” in a lead graf? The least confusing approach for reporting on the issue, in my view, would be to talk only about “illegal” fishing. It’s time to point out that we (nations, advocates, stakeholders, RFMOs) do not have the resources to chase down the “UUs” yet, that enforcement must concentrate on the most egregious actions—those that could have legal consequences/penalties—and that work on the “UU” issues will evolve slowly through other means (training, tech transfer, RFMOs, diplomacy, etc.). Happy New Year, Mark. Thanks for your posts!

    • January 5, 2015 12:10 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Suzanne. I really do not think the phenomena underlying IUU is all that complicated. It is illegal or it is unregulated, and the two are so separate, that we really don’t need a composite term for them.

      I agree, pirate fishing is another messy term…but really, what does that even mean? The layman would think that fishing vessels are boarding others to steal their catch. It’s a catch name that very poorly describes what is happening. Illegal fishing, I think, it fine enough!

  2. February 25, 2015 4:31 am

    Mark, I do not agree with your post. The term IUU fishing has been used to refer to both the juridical aspects (i.e. illegal/unregulated) as well as the empirical aspects (fishing without permit, etc etc) of the phenomenon quite widely in literature both internationally and at European level. You seem to imply here that unregulated fishing is legal – this is not at all clear cut in international law, and definitely not a statement I would support.

    • February 25, 2015 11:03 am

      Good point, so then a softer statement would be that by UNCLOS, unregulated fishing may be illegal or legal, but in this way, we are still lumping together legal and illegal fishing, no? Here’s the line from the IPOA-IUU: “certain unregulated fishing may take place in a manner which is not in violation of applicable international law, and may not require the application of measures envisaged under the International Plan of Action`(IPOA).”

      More to my point is that IUU, a grouping of certain types of illegal and legal activities, is more often used to reference only illegal fishing, which creates a lot of confusion among non-experts and inhibits effective advocacy. Illegal fishing may lead to unreported catches, but also reported catches. By the IPOAA’s definition, unreported catches are illegal, but by common sense, they might also be unregulated. Unregulated may be legal or illegal. What good is it to talk about all these things together when their causes might be so different? Perhaps as a term to talk about problematic high seas fishing, it makes sense, since these things tend to run together. But in the EEZs, where most of the world’s fishing, and likely most of the world’s illegal catches occur? I’d say not so much.

  3. February 26, 2015 3:25 am

    Mark – the definition is in the law, and has been widely used in international law and policy papers. Whilst not entirely straightforward, it is what we’ve got. My point is that what’s legal or illegal is determined by law, not by people’s opinions.
    A couple of points: in the EEZ, you are safe talking about illegal fishing only, unless you particularly want to highlight the unreported nature of any activity – Paragraphs 3.1 and 3.2 of the IPOA IUU. If you want to split hairs, there may be some unregulated fishing in cases where States haven’t legislated properly, but this will be rare.
    In the high seas, you can have all three types, but most of the time the activities will be illegal in nature.
    Much legal ink has been spilled over the definition of the ‘unregulated’ prong of the IUU fishing definition of the IPOA, with some legal commentators currently proposing changes to the definition.
    So long as the law remains as it is, our preferred interpretation is that in the high seas unregulated fishing will mostly be illegal, but a small amount will be legal because there are some areas of the high seas and some target species over which there are simply no conservation measures, and it may be difficult to argue if other international legal rules have been breached in some circumstances.
    Once States legislate to extend RFMO governance over these areas and species, all unregulated fishing in the high seas may one day be considered illegal – then life will be simpler for everyone involved in this field…

    • March 6, 2015 9:01 pm

      Yeah, there’s a lot we can unpack here but I think we’re trying to make different points. I agree, the law is clear. What I don’t agree with is that the term is being used correctly. From my experience at and working with numerous NGOs, the term is used as short-hand for unreported illegal fishing, to the detriment of such issues as reported legal fishing and unregulated fishing issues. And secondly, I have to ask, does this term have use in terms of management? While it certainly gives a legal lever, does it make sense? I would say “yes” if we could generally say that the three types of fishing have the same causes, or have the same solutions. I’ve just not seen that this is the case.

  4. February 26, 2015 3:43 am

    By the way (and this goes partly as a reply to Suzanne’s post), I just want to point out that I would not in principle object to anyone referring to IUU simply as illegal, as most of it is. What I object to is equating unregulated with legal fishing, because this can lead to confusion as to the true legal nature of most unregulated fishing, with, potentially, pretty dreadful conservation consequences.

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