IUU: Winning the war on illegal fishing

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing – or IUU – is one of the most destructive challenges facing the seafood economy. Responsible for depleting fish stocks, destroying precious marine habitats, disadvantaging honest fishers and seafood ventures and much more besides,  all on a global scale.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), such activities – varying from mislabelling or catching in protected areas to some of the worst forms of human rights abuses – are responsible for the loss of 11-26 million tonnes of fisheries products with an estimated economic value of $10-23 billion annually. This considerable volume corresponds to at least 15% of the total world catch.

While no law-abiding supply chain stakeholder or consumer wants to see any such products appear in the marketplace, seafood remains a high-risk category for food fraud and other problems, with unscrupulous operators using supply chain frailties to mask their activities.

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Positive but slow regulatory intervention

Historically, a big part of the problem lies in the sheer magnitude of the seafood sector, with many lengthy and frequently vague supply chains. Derived from a wide variety of fisheries that deploy many different catching and handling methods, fisheries products rank amongst the most widely traded food commodities in the world. The total commerce value is estimated at some $150 billion annually and rising, thanks to the growing global demand for healthier diets.

Unfortunately, this same demand also further incentivises IUU. To help close the loopholes that allow illegal operators to profit from their activities, European authorities introduced an EU regulation in 2010 that applies to all landings and transhipments of EU and third-country fishing vessels in EU ports, and all trade of marine fishery products to and from the region. Its primary aim is to make sure that no illegally caught fisheries products end up in the EU market. This regulation requires flag states to certify the origin and legality of the fish, thereby ensuring the full traceability of all marine fishery products traded from and into the EU. The measures therefore aim to ensure that countries comply with their own conservation and management rules as well as with internationally agreed rules.

The United States and many other important fishing and seafood buying nations have introduced similar anti-IUU rules and initiatives. But while positives can and should be taken from having these in place, and also from knowing that things are moving in the right direction, the aforementioned IUU figures show that too many operators are continuing to flout the rules and that much more needs to be done to win the war.  

Protecting supply chains with robust data

Given the landscape, what the legitimate value chain and end-consumers want and value above almost everything else is confidence in the products. They want to know unequivocally that a fish has been caught sustainably and legally, and that everyone involved in its sourcing and production has been treated humanely and ethically.

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Properly tracing the journey from harvest to entry into commerce and establishing that confidence requires transparent and fully traceable boat-to-plate seafood supply chains, enabled by sophisticated identification and tracking tools. Quite simply, without full-chain traceability there’s no way of determining whether an imported fish or fisheries product is indeed legal or the result of unlawful fishing or human rights abuses.

Despite the increasing consumer demand for seafood products where the origin is known, these aren’t as widespread as they need to be. Therefore, moving forward, it’s essential that the adoption of such dynamic systems is dramatically accelerated. As well as greatly hindering the entry of illegal products into the supply chain and closing loopholes, these will ensure that buyers and sellers of seafood are much better informed, and that end-consumers always purchase good seafood – products that were caught using sustainable methods by crews that were well treated and fairly paid for their work. In the grand scheme of things, and in this day and age, it’s not too much to ask.

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