Illegal fishing occurs in national waters, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and on the high seas, it is often associated with illegal processing and illegal trade of fish and it threatens economic stability, food security, the marine environment and the sustainability of the fishery resources.


In the past two decades much progress has been made towards stopping illegal fishing through the development of international fisheries policies to encourage for example, improved flag and port State responsibility for fishing vessels, their crew and their activities and a greater consumer awareness that has put pressure on importing nations to ensure the legitimacy of imported fish. Many countries have also made significant improvements in national fisheries policy and legislation towards strengthening their fisheries management systems and, at the same time, improved implementation through capacity building and provision of resources for monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) of fishing operations.

Overall, these improvements have resulted in increased compliance by licensed fleets to fisheries laws in many countries. However, evidence emerging from the African continent and elsewhere demonstrates aspects of illegality in fisheries that is beyond the conventional non-compliance of fisheries laws; it is complex, serious and potentially devastating. This is known as ‘fisheries crime’ and it incorporates links between illegal fishing and fisheries crimes (from a legal perspective) and crimes such as tax evasion, human rights abuse including human trafficking, drug, wildlife, diamond and arms smuggling, fraud and pollution.

Indications suggest that through understanding and drawing the links between these fisheries and related crimes we may find some solutions to assist in bringing those responsible to justice. Cooperation between the different authorities involved, across sectors and countries, with support from international analytical and investigative experts, may lead to identifying the perpetrators and finding options to prosecute within whichever legislation and country is possible.

The following are practical examples of fisheries crime: 

  • illegal fisheries activities that include multiple vessels sharing one identify and thus violating a maritime law;
  • illegal fish that is whitewashed into legal catches thus violating a trade law;
  • key documents, such as fishing licences, that are fraudulent thus violating a flag State criminal law;
  • use of a fishing vessel to transport drugs or people thus violating criminal or labour laws;
  • or the failure of owners of multi-billion USD fishing operations to pay their taxes thus violating revenue or taxation laws.

Broadening the view of illegal fishing to include fisheries crime and investigating these global, highly organised and well-financed transnational crimes and criminals offers a pathway to justice via intercepting some of the most destructive illegal fishing networks and prosecuting the individuals controlling them.

In order to put this into practice, fisheries experts and practitioners will need to engage with the police, judiciary, customs, tax, port, security and labour authorities to gather and share information, intelligence and knowledge and to pool investigative resources. They will also need to understand the options of and benefits and potential associated with international mutual support towards this end, including assisting developing countries in this regard, to bridge the gaps between large-scale industrial illegal fishing and fisheries crime in order to bring perpetrators to justice.