Casting a Wider Net: The Security Implications of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing In Focus

The world’s fisheries are on the brink of collapse. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UNFAO) estimates that nearly 90 percent are fully exploited or overexploited and depleted, while demand for seafood continues to increase. Faced with this reality, fishing fleets are scavenging the globe to meet the growing demand, and in the process often engage in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

These pervasive operations do not just pose a threat to the environment, but also a significant threat to national, regional, and global security. Put simply, the challenges and threats posed by IUU fishing are vast — from ecological, economic, and food security to geopolitical stability, maritime piracy, and transnational organized crime.

How can the U.S. government better address the challenges posed by IUU fishing? Stimson experts Amanda Shaver and Sally Yozell examine.

IUU fishing is not simply a conservation and sustainability issue, it is also a national security issue, intertwined with geopolitical stability.

The perpetrators of IUU fishing are not just the local fisherman catching a bit more than his quota allows. It includes foreign vessels fishing illegally in another nation's sovereign waters, to illicit networks that are linked to piracy and terrorism, as well as trafficking of drugs, arms, and people.

IUU fishing creates the potential for destabilization in areas critical to U.S. national security interests, making it imperative for the security community to join efforts to combat it.

The FAO Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (the Agreement) was adopted by the FAO Conference in 2009. The main purpose of the Agreement is to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing through the implementation of robust port State measures.

Commercial fishing is big business, with a complex global supply chain.

On any given day, a fish can be caught in East Africa, transported to Asia for processing, and then shipped onward to Europe or the United States, where it eventually makes its way to a consumer’s plate.

As seafood moves further along the supply chain and further away from where it was originally harvested, it becomes exceedingly difficult to determine whether it was legally caught.

Estimates suggest 20 to 50 percent of the global fish catch is either illegally caught, mislabeled, never reported, or from a fishery without any management regime.

The profits from illegal and unreported fishing are valued at an estimated $15.5 to $36.4 billion a year.

Arms traffickers have also been known to use fishing vessels to smuggle their product. For example, in 2016 an Australian naval ship interdicted a dhow off the coast of Yemen smuggling a whole host of weapons. Reports speculated that the intended final destination of the weapons was Yemen—which ultimately would likely have helped fuel the ongoing civil war.

17 percent of the world’s population relies on fish as their main source of animal protein. In 2014, an estimated 56.6 million people worked in capture fisheries or aquaculture, with marine capture fisheries producing 81.5 million tonnes of fish destined for the global market.


IUU fishing is a threat to U.S. national security interests due to its multivariate impacts on individuals, communities, economies, institutions, and governments. The U.S. government and Department of Defense can better address the threats posed by IUU fishing through:

  • Increasing engagement of Combatant Commands (COCOMS),
  • Expanding shiprider agreements between the U.S. and foreign countries,
  • Encouraging countries to ratify, implement, and enforce the Port State Measures Agreement,
  • Dedicating resources to increase monitoring and enforcement capacities,
  • Advocating for comprehensive foreign domestic fisheries regulations and catch reporting requirements,
  • Encouraging greater transparency of the fishing industry,
  • Mandating use of Vessel Tracking Systems (VTS) to track fishing fleets,
  • Increasing data and information collection and sharing,
  • Increasing dialogue and partnerships between the U.S. government, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector.

About the Experts

Amanda Shaver, Research Assistant with the Environmental Security program

Sally Yozell, Senior Associate and Director of the Environmental Security program

Innovative Ideas Changing The World


1) Photo by Erwan Hesry, Unsplash 2) Photo by U.S. Southern Command 3) Photo by UNFAO Fisheries and Acquaculture Department 4) Photo by Fredrik Ohlander, Unsplash 5) Photo by Duangphorn Wiriya, Unsplash 6) Photo by Anastasia Palagutina, Unsplash 

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