Too Big to Tackle? the Persistent Problem of Pirate Fishing and the New Focus on Port State Measures

Article excerpt


A war is raging in many of the world's oceans, as regulatory authorities attempt to thwart rogue fishing vessels from plundering global fish stocks. (1) Once an abundant resource, fish stocks are dwindling and many fisheries have reached their maximum production levels, threatening this fundamental food source. (2) A major contributor to the feeble state of the global fish inventory is Pirate Fishing, or Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. (3) IUU fishing includes illegal activities that do not comply with national, regional, or global fisheries conservation and management obligations and regulations. (4) IUU fishing wreaks havoc on countless local economies, resulting in billions of dollars in global economic loss annually. (5)

This note traces the development of Pirate Fishing, chronicling its global economic impact and legislative responses, with a particular focus on the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (Port State Measures Agreement or PSMA) adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 2009. (6) This note evaluates the benefits and shortcomings of the PSMA and concludes that it is unlikely the legislation will substantially mitigate the occurrence of IUU fishing worldwide. (7)


A. IUU Fishing: A Global Resource Threatened

Nations have battled for centuries over fishing rights, fishing regulations, and fishing grounds because people rely on fish as a food source. (8) Today, the world's oceans are in unprecedented peril from overfishing, which has exacerbated this historic conflict. (9) Ineffective regulations threaten fisheries despite longstanding concerns over human environmental impact and many governmental commitments to ensure sustainable natural resources. (10) At the heart of this problem is international IUU fishing. (11) In the late 1990s, the commission established under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) coined the term "IUU fishing," and today the phrase is frequently used among regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), policy makers, and fishermen to describe a broad array of illicit actions. (12) IUU fishing occurs when national or foreign vessels harvest fish from a state's jurisdictional waters without permission or fish in an area in violation of a conservation agreement, RFMO, or international law or treaty to which the vessel's flag state is a party. (13) IUU fishing threatens the sustainability of fish stocks on a global scale and accounts for USD23 billion in global economic loss annually. (14)

Pirate fishing is economically driven, affecting a fishing industry worth USD110 billion worldwide, with the majority of the demand coming primarily from the European and Asian food markets. (15) Pirate fishing vessel operators enjoy a considerable commercial advantage over legal fishing vessels, as the pirate vessels are able to lower their costs and increase their profits by not paying for access to marine resources and not complying with licensing and other regulations. (16) The economic advantage gained by pirate fishermen is achieved at the expense of the world's poorest populations, which rely upon fish as their primary source of protein. (17)

Historically IUU fishing issues were considered a problem primarily for developing countries, but IUU fishing occurs even in the most developed and wealthiest countries. (18) For example, IUU fishing has recently plagued the U.S. along its border with Mexico due in large part to the increased demand for shark fins. (19) This suggests that even when countries have substantial resources and well-developed scientific, administrative, legal, and management institutions in place, they still fail to address IUU issues in a comprehensive manner. (20)

IUU fishing occurs because the benefits gained from violating regulations outweigh the risk of detection and potential consequences. …