Holding Illegal Fishing Perpetrators Accountable

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) recent report—Improving International Fisheries Management: 2021 Report to Congress—promotes accountability for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing by naming nations whose fleets engage in these harmful practices. While the report lays important groundwork, much more needs to be done to ensure that those responsible for illegal fishing do not continue to lurk in the shadows.  

As my colleagues and I have previously blogged, illegal fishing depletes ocean ecosystems, undermines the livelihood of honest fishermen, and perpetuates serious labor and human rights abuses. Preventing illegal fishing is essential for ocean health, and the need grows greater every year as ocean biodiversity declines and climate change disrupts essential ocean processes.

Major seafood consuming nations, including the United States, drive demand from seafood producing countries overseas, and up to thirty percent of catch is through illicit means. While it is difficult to compel changes in international fisheries management and enforcement, one powerful mechanism for deterring illegal fishing is through the High Seas Driftnet Moratorium Protection Act, which requires NOAA to prepare a biennial report naming nations responsible for illegal fishing, bycatch of protected living marine resources (such as sea turtles and marine mammals), and illegal shark fishing. The Moratorium Protection Act creates a process for trade sanctions and other penalties against nations that fail to address illegal fishing in their fleets. These penalties or sanctions are levied when NOAA either identifies or negatively certifies a nation in the report.

NOAA flexed its enforcement powers in this year’s report by identifying seven countries for illegal fishing and twenty-eight countries for bycatch of sea turtles. The violations include disregard of international conservation measures, overharvest of valuable species such as tuna and swordfish, and failure to implement sea turtle conservation measures equivalent to those of the United States. Named countries will have the opportunity to remedy problematic practices, and NOAA will evaluate their progress before taking further corrective action.

NOAA also negatively certified Mexico for enabling illegal fishing activity by its boats fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA found that illegal fishing activity continued, and even increased since NOAA’s last report, and that Mexican authorities failed to effectively prosecute violators and deter repeated offenders. Mexican fishing vessels will have limited access to U.S. ports until the violations are remedied, and NOAA also plans to recommend trade restrictions.

Yet while NOAA goes further than it has before in identifying and penalizing nations that tolerate illegal fishing, it can, and should do still more to ensure the Moratorium Protection Act is implemented to the fullest, including:

  • Commit to penalizing bycatch of other protected species – NOAA targeted only nations enabling sea turtle bycatch. Yet other protected species—including certain marine mammals and sharks—are also covered by the Moratorium Protection Act and were not used as grounds for listing in the current report. Given the ongoing biodiversity crisis, it is more urgent than ever that NOAA implement the Moratorium Protection Act rigorously to investigate and penalize the bycatch of other protected species.
  • Commit to penalizing illegal shark catch – Sharks are a keystone species, crucial for maintaining ocean health. A recent study in Nature highlighted the concerning trend that many shark populations have declined by more than 70 percent in the past half century and are at grave risk of extinction. Yet, in this year’s report, NOAA failed to list any countries for illegal shark catch on the high seas. As we have pointed out previously, there is ample evidence of illegal shark catch on the high seas. In future reports, NOAA should negatively certify and penalize nations engaged in illegal shark catch.
  • Use an expanded definition of illegal fishing – Illegal fishing is an expansive and complicated problem—involving interrelated problems from the flouting of fishing laws to human and labor rights violations. Using a broader definition of illegal fishing would allow more thorough enforcement against all these related activities. Under existing law, NOAA must use the definition of illegal fishing used by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, which would enable enforcement against a broader array of illegal fishing violations. Proposed legislation would expand the definition even more to include labor and human rights violations, if it passes. For the next report, NOAA must use the broadest definition of illegal fishing available.

The Moratorium Protection Act is a powerful tool to curb illegal fishing and related violations. While this biennial report was an improvement, NOAA will need to do more to if the United States is to stop illegal fishing and associated human rights abuses. 

About the Authors

Irene Gutierrez

Senior Attorney, Nature Program

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