Illegal Fishing: Automating Data Collection Sally Yozell, Stimson Center

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is prolific, and often closely tied to other illicit trade in drugs, weapons, and even people. It harms local economies, increases conflict, and exacerbates the impact of climate change.

But the problem is very difficult to track, so Stimson is exploring ways to automate the creation of a dataset that policymakers can use to understand the scale and impact of illegal fishing and tackle the problem.

It's frequent...

In December 2018, the Royal Australian Navy seized over 900 kilograms of heroin from traditional fishing vessels in the Arabian Sea. That same month, a Taiwanese Coast Guard vessel used water cannons to deter illegal fishing by Chinese ships in their waters. And recently, Indian fishermen were arrested by Pakistani officials for illegally fishing in Pakistan’s waters.

...and global.

Incidents like these only scratch the surface of the security implications of illegal fishing plaguing our ocean. From the waters of South America to the coast of West Africa, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is prolific due to poor monitoring and weak enforcement capabilities of governments.

But policymakers and researchers have long grappled with understanding the true extent of the problem.

"Experts estimate that illicit profits range from 15 to 36 billion dollars per year – money that lines the pockets of transnational organized crime syndicates."

Other illicit activities, such as the smuggling of drugs, guns and human trafficking, are often hidden in these illegal fishing vessels.

Meanwhile, those countries hardest hit by illegal fishing are the nations least able to respond to the assault, creating a cycle that robs law-abiding fishers of their livelihoods, creates an atmosphere of lawlessness, and denies governments badly needed tax revenue to address the issue.

Many have put forward solutions to address IUU fishing – everything from encouraging governments to mandate greater oversight of fishing vessels through vessel monitoring systems or improving port and inspector capabilities.

But there remains the problem of understanding the true extent of IUU fishing globally -- understanding that will incentivize and spur immediate action.

Policymakers need data to make decisions.

For many in the U.S. government, both on Capitol Hill and in the Executive Branch, as well as in the non-governmental community, understanding the extent of the problem is a key leverage point to encouraging greater engagement and necessary movement on the issue.

We took a first step...

Recognizing this need, Stimson’s Environmental Security team created a web-based map – the first of its kind – a few years ago that catalogs incidents of IUU fishing that converge with security issues, such as drugs, arms, and human trafficking.

But it wasn't sustainable...

Gathering this disparate information from multiple sources, correlating it, and confirming incidents is time-consuming and expensive, and so the project was ended after a year.

We believe automation offers a solution.

The Plan: Build an automated tool that gathers data and evaluates potential IUU fishing events and their relationship to security events.

Many organizations, news outlets, and governments collect or cover IUU fishing incidents, but gathering these incidents in one place has not been done successfully or sustainably. Developing a tool to do the time-intensive work would be an important step to addressing the security challenges of illegal fishing.

Stimson's Environmental Security Program wants to develop a tool to:

  • Sift through data from a multitude of sources and formats
  • Work with a variety of languages
  • Evaluate potential IUU events and related security problems for researchers
  • Provide a resource for policymakers eager to understand and address the problem


This project is pursuing partnership and advisory relationships, including:

  • Next steps with ready tools from the data science community
  • Technology partners interested in building the tool
  • Funding partners who see the potential value of this dataset
  • Alternative approaches to gathering data

Contact: Sally Yozell, Senior Fellow and Director of Stimson's Environmental Security Program: syozell@stimson.org


Created with images by Oziel Gómez - "Fishing in Istanbul" • Quangpraha - "the fishermen vietnam fishing" • Thomas Vuillemin - "old man and boats" • Jomar - "Capitol Hill Washington D.C." • Luca Bravo - "Code on a laptop screen"

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