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IUU fishing

Combating the threat to people and fisheries

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is one of the most serious threats to the health of the world’s fisheries and oceans – and the secure employment of fishers.

IUU is often accompanied by gross violations of human and labour rights and the ITF is working to eradicate it.

Globally, fisheries and marine ecosystems are being exploited at an unsustainable rate. Increasing demand and low coastal fish stocks encourage trawlers to take risks as they chase dwindling stocks ever further out to sea.

IUU fishing threatens:

  • fishers’ lives and safety at sea
  • fishers’ wages and labour rights
  • the environment and our food supply
  • the responsible fishing business, which cannot keep up
  • nations and public services (through tax avoidance)

IUU fishing can cause an entire fishery to collapse and gains an unfair advantage over responsible fishers, who work in accordance with the rules.

These rules are set out by:

  • UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries
  • International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate IUU Fishing (IPOA-IUU)

In accordance with these regulations:

  • every country must take responsibility for IUU fishing happening under its jurisdiction
  • flag states must take control of vessels that fly their flag to ensure compliance with conservation and management of high seas fisheries

Flag state responsibility and IUU fishing 

There is a dangerous and widespread relationship between IUU fishing and flags of convenience (FOCs).

To eliminate IUU fishing, the first step is to eradicate the system that allows FOCs to proliferate and operate.

All the relevant international organisations and stakeholders must work together to fill loopholes in international law. This needs to start with an agreement on the definition of the ‘genuine link’ between the owner of a vessel and its chosen flag of registration.

Putting an end to flag hopping There’s currently no international law establishing a minimum period for a vessel to fly a certain flag. This allows for ‘flag hopping’, when vessels can be registered in as little as 24 hours, without any authority checking on their activities.

This allows vessels to hop from one flag state to another, exploiting fishing quotas and avoiding capture and accountability. Resolving the loopholes relating to FOCs and transparency of ownership will make flag hopping much more difficult.

IUU fishing and human and labour rights

There is a strong link between IUU fishing and abuses of human rights.  

Abuse can mean many things, including:

  • extreme physical violence against crew members
  • slave labour
  • systematic cheating by owners and agents of fishers’ wages
  • fishworkers abandoned on unsafe vessels for months on end, without pay and forced to rely on charity to survive

Fishworkers are routinely made to work in conditions that would be unacceptable in other industries. They are often too afraid to complain for fear of blacklisting or threats to their families.

When vessels are being granted authorisations to fish, certain standards, such as fishing convention 188 should be taken into account by the relevant states and regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs).

The definitions of IUU

Illegal fishing refers to vessels that are:

  • fishing without the permission of the state governing those waters
  • violating the relevant state’s laws and regulations
  • ignoring conservation and management measures set by the relevant RFMO
  • violating national and/or international laws and obligations 

Unreported fishing means fishing that has not been reported or has been misreported or misrepresented to the relevant:

  • national authority, in violation of its laws and regulations
  • RFMO, contravening its reporting procedures

Unregulated fishing refers to fishing activities:

  • in RFMO waters by vessels without nationality, those flying the flag of a state not party to that organisation, or those disregarding a RFMO’s conservation and management measures
  • in areas without conservation or management measures in place, where fishing breaks international laws governing the conservation of living marine resources

Links to relevant websites regarding IUU fishing

Find out more about IUU fishing and RFMOs, plus the established IUU vessel blacklists:


Combined IUU Vessel List


Fiskeridirektoratet (Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries)

Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC)

Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC)

The Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT) has established a white list of fishing vessels authorised to fish for southern bluefin tuna.

Other resources:

UN FAO Fisheries and Agriculture Department

Stop Illegal Fishing, a non-profit focused on Africa

Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators (COLTO)

Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO)
Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC)