Australian Customs boards a suspected fishing vessel: Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing around sub-Antarctic Islands in the Southern Ocean has been a major concern for the regional management organization, CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. Photo: Australian Customs

A wicked problem

Unregulated fisheries resilient to international enforcement measures.

Previous research has shown that marine areas rich on valuable fish stocks are not being sufficiently protected either by local government or by international regulations.
Added to the problem is the resilience and adaptiveness of so-called Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing vessels which continue to work on the fringes of international law despite various enforcement measures and international pressure on flag states.
A new article written by centre researchers Henrik Österblom and Örjan Bodin together with researchers in Canada and Australia, shows how IUU operators in the Southern Ocean use a number of methods to adapt to and evade various enforcement actions.
More sophisticated, more resilient
In 2002, the escape of the Russian flagged vessel Lena from Australian coast guard showed how IUU fishing had become increasingly organised and sophisticated. Lena was refueled by another vessel during her escape, indicating that she was part of a bigger network.
It became evident that vessels had started to operate in fleets and received both logistic support and legal advice during hot pursuits. In addition, vessels frequently changed names and flags and regularly dumped catch, log books, computers and other potential evidence if they were captured.
Taking action against IUU vessel owners is not straightforward, as ownership is often disguised by complex company structures, often in part registered in tax havens.
- IUU operators appear adaptive, likely due to a combination of increased offshore coordination and consolidation, hidden corporative beneficiaries and substantial monetary assets. These factors contribute to their resilience, says centre researcher Henrik Österblom.
One of the key reasons to this marine cat-and-mouse play is because IUU fishing vessels change their modus operandi by changing flags* from countries with stronger control to countries with weaker governance capacity.
- No country is immune to IUU fishing, but the ability to effectively address it is dependent on the country's governance capacity. The recent concentration of IUU fishing vessels flagging to a small number of flag states may indicate that a decreasing number of countries are willing to flag IUU vessels, or that that the operators and owners of these vessels are deliberately targeting areas with weak governance, says Österblom.
Fishing down the governance index
In their research, a total of 147 officially suspected offshore IUU activities involving 72 identified vessels were recorded between 1995 and 2009.
The estimated levels of IUU fishing have decreased substantially between 1995 and 2009 because of tougher actions against vessels, however the research revealed how the get-away vessels simply adapt by moving the responsibility to other countries.
- The capacity of regionally mandated organizations such as CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) to further reduce IUU fishing is hampered by the fact that none of the recorded IUU fishing vessels currently active are flagged to this organization, and that their current flag states have limited capacity to take action, says co-author Örjan Bodin.
A race to the bottom
Overcapacity and subsidies, depleted fish stocks, perceived lack of legitimacy of remote fishing zones, poverty and lack of alternative livelihoods have all been described as contributing to IUU fishing.
Significant diplomatic pressure, as well as social pressure from Environmental NGOs andthe licensed fishing industry has been directed at vessel owners with some success, however there appear to be no clear ultimate solutions to IUU fishing.
- This race to the bottom, or "fishing down the governance index" with a relocation of IUU fishing operations to flag states with weak governance, can only be addressed by realising that IUU is a symptom of other problems, says Örjan Bodin.
Confronting IUU fishing must build on enforcement and management measures at various scales.
This includes the implementation of the recent Port State agreement, information sharing, capacity building and increased international coordination, but it also means addressing overcapacity, depleted fish stocks and offering alternative livelihoods for crew on IUU vessels.

Read Swedish summary herePDF (pdf, 340 kB)
See video interview with Jeremy Allouche from Institute of Development Studies on How conflicts over natural resources should  be resolved:

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* The flag state of a vessels has the primary responsibility for its action.

Source: Österblom H, Sumaila UR, Bodin Ö, Hentati Sundberg J, Press AJ, 2010  Adapting to Regional Enforcement: Fishing Down the Governance Index.  PLoS ONE 5(9): e12832. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012832



Österblom H, Sumaila UR, Bodin Ö, Hentati Sundberg J, Press AJ, 2010  Adapting to Regional Enforcement: Fishing Down the Governance Index.  PLoS ONE 5(9): e12832. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0012832.

Read Swedish summary herePDF (pdf, 340 kB)

About the centre authors:

Henrik Österblom has a background in marine ecology and also in working for the Swedish Ministry of Environment. His research focuses on food-web interactions, trophic cascades and ecosystem regime shifts, as well as governance of marine resources.
Örjan Bodin's research describes and models social, ecological and coupled social and ecological systems as complex and intricate webs of interactions between, and among, different ecological and/or social components.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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