What Is IUU Fishing, and Why Is It Important to Stop It?

What Is IUU Fishing, and Why Is It Important to Stop It?

How does illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing jeopardize fish sustainability? How does it threaten the livelihoods of fishermen? We look at the facts.

IUU fishing is a global problem.

It depletes fish stocks, destroys sensitive marine environments, and ultimately puts legitimate fishing operations at a disadvantage. IUU fishing is particularly detrimental in developing countries, where it threatens the livelihoods of entire communities.

The EU estimates that IUU fishing generates more than $11 billion globally each year.

Fishing is illegal if it:

  • Is unauthorized.
  • Contravenes management and conservation measures implemented by Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs).
  • Violates international or national laws.

When fishing is not reported, or when the way it is reported contravenes national, international, or RFMO regulations, this constitutes illegal fishing.

If the fishing vessel has no nationality, or if fishing practices jeopardize fish stocks, this also constitutes unregulated fishing.

The EU reports that 19% of the worldwide value of catches come from IUU fishing.

fishing boats

Fishing is regulated through national and international laws and regulations.

International fisheries law regulates fishing in areas outside of national jurisdictions. The regulations are primarily based on regional and international customs and treaties, as well as precedents set by case law, such as previous decisions of courts and tribunals settling fishing-related litigation.

In Europe, fisheries must adhere to the Common Fisheries Policy, a set of rules for European fishing fleets. The EU implemented this legislation in response to overfishing. The goal of the policy is to promote environmentally friendly fishing practices that do not harm the ability of fish populations to reproduce.

In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) manages fisheries within the US exclusive economic zone, or the area extending from three to 200 nautical miles off the coast. Closer to shore, fishery management is generally the responsibility of the individual state. NOAA Fisheries consults with Interstate Marine Fisheries Commissions and eight Regional Fishery Management Councils (RFMCs) to:

  • Develop fishing management plans.
  • Conduct public meetings and assemble advisory panels and committees.
  • Establish research priorities.
  • Select fishery management options.
  • Set annual catch limits according to the best available science.
  • Develop and execute rebuilding plans.

NOAA Fisheries legislation is specially designed to protect whales, porpoises, dolphins, sea lions, and seals. Fisheries must report interactions with marine mammals through NOAA Fisheries’ special system.

Enforcement officers and special agents from the NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement uphold US federal fisheries laws, taking enforcement action where US marine resource laws are violated.

Fishing regulations prevent overfishing and protect marine environments.

Fishing laws and regulations are critical for protecting commercial fish stocks and safeguarding threatened and endangered species.

Fishing regulations set parameters, such as amounts of a particular species that may be fished. Laws also establish fishing seasons to give stocks time to recover and stipulate the minimum fish size requirements to protect fish of spawning size. In addition, fishing regulations are designed to maintain healthy levels of both target and non-target fish species, as well as protect marine environments.


The collapse of the Canadian cod fishery is a cautionary tale about unregulated fishing.

In the latter part of the 20th century, overfishing became a serious problem globally. One of the most well-known effects of overfishing is the collapse of Canada’s Grand Banks cod fishery.

Cod had been plentiful in this area of the Northern Atlantic for centuries. When Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto arrived in Newfoundland in 1497, he remarked that the sea was teeming with fish, so much so that you could catch them by throwing a basket overboard and quickly pulling it up. Cod was a sustainable protein source for centuries; fishermen left enough fish in the sea to maintain healthy breeding populations year after year.

In the 20th century, however, new technologies allowed fishermen to increase their catches. Especially after the 1950s, larger trawlers with longer lines, radar, and electronic navigation began arriving in the Grand Banks, drawn to the plentiful cod stocks. In 1968, the cod fishery’s total catch was 800,000 tons, up from 360,000 tons in 1959.

Enormous freezer factory trawlers arrived from around the world, landing vast amounts of cod, as well as non-target species such as hake, redfish, capelin, and haddock. Cod spawning stocks could not keep up with the huge catches. Though Canada extended its economic exclusion zone to 200 nautical miles off its coast, domestic fishing fleets still were taking too much. They were enabled by ever-more advanced technology, overly optimistic government estimates of cod stocks, and quotas that were too high.

Fishermen reported that cod stocks and sizes were diminishing by the early 1980s, but fishing continued until the early 1990s, when disaster struck. The cod stocks collapsed—in just three decades, the spawning biomass of northern cod had plummeted by 93 percent. The Canadian government responded by closing the northern cod fishery for two years. Later, this moratorium was extended.  

The closure of the fishery devastated entire communities and the regional economy. Tens of thousands of people were out of work, and the government spent billions on aid to support struggling families. It was also a cultural shock, as the cod fishery was a major part of local heritage.

The collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery offers a sobering lesson in fishery management: unregulated fishing can be disastrous not only for fish, but for humans, too. 

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