Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing endangers maritime security

To many people, the mention of “security at sea” conjures images of naval battles, piracy and nations protecting their shores from foreign aggression. But today, many coastal nations face a more immediate maritime threat: illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

IUU fishing accounts for up to 1 in 5 wild-caught fish sold around the world—up to $23 billion worth of seafood—and is associated with a host of other crimes, often including human trafficking. Illegal fishing also threatens healthy fish populations, which are vital to sustaining biodiversity throughout the ocean, and, when properly managed, are a self-renewing natural resource as well as a critical source of food, employment and government revenue in many regions. IUU fishing significantly threatens all those benefits.

Although fisheries enforcement is not traditionally the focus of maritime security forces, it is time that the protection of fisheries is viewed through a security lens. Conventionally, security is focused at the national level, but the migratory nature of fish stocks and the transitory nature of fishing necessitates a multilateral approach, ideally with a regional focus, to ensure the protection of these valuable natural resources and effective maritime governance.

Rethinking fisheries enforcement across ocean regions
IUU fishing almost inevitably takes place throughout multiple jurisdictions and areas of responsibility, so incorporating enforcement of fisheries policies into broader maritime governance can help reduce other maritime-related threats, and the collective return on investment will ensure safer seas and a more secure food supply.

From intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination to on-the-water operations and their oversight, fisheries enforcement provides a country or region with the opportunity to exercise the full range of its military and security capabilities. Further, the mechanisms for fighting illegal fishing or other criminal activities are very similar to those used in traditional military roles. Fisheries enforcement involves the use of military-grade monitoring, analysis and decision-making to detect, identify and intercept vessels of interest. These parallels can help improve how agencies train for all maritime security operations, including IUU fisheries enforcement.

Cooperative maritime exercises should bring fisheries into the fold
Domestic training is important, but it alone is insufficient to substantially curtail illegal fishing. Regional cooperation is needed, along the lines of the multinational UNITAS (Latin for “unity”) exercises that South American navies and coast guards have conducted annually since 1960. That’s just one example of collaborative operations countries use to enhance maritime security. Incorporating fisheries enforcement into such efforts would show that fighting IUU fishing—a major ocean crime—is as significant as efforts against other illicit activities.

Because of the clear and present danger presented by illicit fishing activity, fisheries protection should be a primary focus of these and other maritime security events. Such exercises and operations should embrace and promote fisheries enforcement as a key element in achieving maritime governance.

Changing times call for non-traditional governance approaches
Some regions have long been ahead of the curve when it comes to enhancing maritime governance and the rule of law. For example, in South America, the 1952 Santiago Declaration established a 200-nautical mile fisheries zone for Chile, Ecuador and Peru, far surpassing the traditional 3-nautical mile coastal State zone of the time. This was the first such cooperative agreement of its kind and was a forward-leaning way to protect fisheries resources.

It took decades for the rest of the world to catch up. It was not until the 1982 adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that the entire world codified what was, by that point, a long-established rule in South America.

Illegal fishing is a symptom of ineffective maritime governance, but it can be remedied. Through effective, strong rulemaking—and a range of enforcement measures—fisheries can be protected in the same way governments protect their nations against foreign aggression. However, because fish populations are often resources shared among numerous countries, managing them effectively requires greater multilateral cooperation than with other natural resources.

It is critical that regional groups, made up of every type of country—from small island nations to large maritime powers—come together to bring fisheries into security efforts and modernize how they treat the valuable fish stocks that billions of people rely on.

For more information on maritime security, talk to one of our experts at


Sign up to our security newsletter

* indicates required