Behind the Scenes: How Sea Shepherd Combats Illegal Fishing

Wednesday, 05 Jun, 2024

Sea Shepherd Global stands at the forefront of the fight against Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, deploying innovative strategies and international collaborations to protect marine biodiversity. 

Sea Shepherd Global's crew on patrol in the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa. Photo Youenn Kerdavid/Sea Shepherd Global.

Understanding Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing refers to fishing activities that do not comply with national, regional, or international fisheries conservation and management laws and regulations. These activities are conducted by vessels in various ways, including:

  1. 1. Fishing without a license: Operating in a country’s waters without authorization.
  2. 2. Misreporting catches: Underreporting or not reporting the amount or species of fish caught, and therefore bypassing quota limits.
  3. 3. Using prohibited gear: Employing fishing methods or gear that are banned due to their destructive nature.
  4. 4. Fishing in protected areas: Operating in zones where fishing is restricted or banned to preserve marine ecosystems or artisanal fishing for coastal populations.
  5. 5. Transshipment at sea: Transferring fish from one vessel to another to obscure the origins of the catch.
Whales trapped in the net of a purse seiner in Gabonese waters. Photo Richard Murphy/Sea Shepherd.

Why is IUU Fishing a Problem?

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly highlighted the grave issue of IUU fishing, recognizing it as a major threat on multiple levels:

Threat to Marine Wildlife and Ecosystems: IUU fishing severely impacts marine biodiversity. It decimates fish populations, disrupts food chains, and results in high bycatch rates, where non-target species like dolphins, sharks, and turtles are unintentionally caught and killed. Bycatch from IUU fishing can be extensive, with hundreds of thousands of marine animals, including endangered species, being discarded dead or dying. This indiscriminate fishing threatens the survival of many marine species and disrupts the balance of ocean ecosystems.

Economic Impact: IUU fishing costs developing nations between $2 to $15 billion in economic losses annually. This economic strain threatens coastal economies that rely heavily on fishing for their livelihoods.

Threat to Coastal Communities: Millions of people in low-income countries depend on fish as their primary source of protein and fishing as their main livelihood. IUU fishing reduces the availability of fish for local consumption and economic activities. This leads to food insecurity and increased poverty among coastal populations. For example, the depletion of local fish populations forces fishers to travel further and spend more time at sea, oftentimes out of sight of land, putting their lives at risk.

Human Rights Violations: IUU fishing often involves human rights abuses, including forced labor and human trafficking. Fishermen working on illegal vessels may face deplorable conditions, including long hours, low or no pay, physical abuse, and lack of safety measures. These conditions violate basic human rights and labor standards. Reports have documented cases where crew members are subjected to inhumane treatment, confined on vessels for months or even years, and denied access to medical care.

Undermining Conservation Efforts: IUU fishing makes it difficult to collect accurate data on fish populations, hindering effective management and conservation strategies. This unregulated exploitation of the ocean jeopardizes global efforts to achieve sustainable development goals, particularly those related to life below water (SDG 14).

Global Security Concerns: The illicit nature of IUU fishing contributes to broader security issues. It is often linked with other forms of transnational organized crime, such as drug trafficking and smuggling. The lack of regulation and oversight in international waters allows these illegal activities to flourish, posing a significant threat to global maritime security. Furthermore, the illegal profits from IUU fishing can fuel corruption and undermine governance in coastal states.

Bycatch that will be discarded from a fishing vessel in The Gambia. Photo Guillermo Cid Reverter/Sea Shepherd

How Sea Shepherd Fills the Gap in Combating IUU Fishing

While international agreements and Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) provide essential frameworks for cooperation and regulation, these frameworks are ineffective without robust monitoring and enforcement practices.

About 75% of the world’s industrial fishing vessels are not publicly tracked, according to research by conservation organization Global Fishing Watch (GFW), making it difficult for authorities to monitor their activities. IUU fishing vessels equipped with the required Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) can turn it off to avoid detection, making it challenging to track them without advanced satellite technology. Finally, many countries lack the resources to conduct regular at-sea patrols throughout their waters, which are crucial for monitoring fishing activities and enforcing regulations.

The countries Sea Shepherd partners with need assistance in patrolling their waters. Often these countries receive complaints from coastal fishers who find their waters plundered by these trawlers, yet find their hands are tied because they don't have the vessel asset to intercept the law breakers. To protect local fishers' livelihoods, West African governments have established Inshore Exclusion Zones (IEZs) reserved for artisanal fishing, where industrial fishing is outlawed. However, without regular patrols, industrial trawlers routinely violate these IEZs, damaging canoes, destroying small-scale fishing nets, and stealing fish from vulnerable communities.

Sea Shepherd steps in to help the countries fill these enforcement gaps through a multi-faceted approach that combines international cooperation, advanced technology, capacity building, and direct enforcement.

Sea Shepherd’s Strategies to Combat IUU Fishing

1. Partnerships with Governments for At-Sea Patrols: We partner with countries to enhance their capacity to enforce existing fisheries regulations and deter IUU fishing within their EEZ. Sea Shepherd has a fleet of well-equipped vessels staffed with experienced crews and volunteers, including captains, marine engineers, deckhands, and media teams. Government officials join our crews during at-sea patrols to conduct inspections and enforce regulations with the power of arrest, escorting them back to port for justice. These patrols not only establish a law enforcement presence at sea, they also illuminate where laws need to be amended and fines increased to deter illegal actors.

2. Advanced Monitoring Technologies: Collaborations with organizations like Global Fishing Watch and Skylight enhance our ability to monitor vast ocean areas through the use of Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), AIS, and satellite imagery to track fishing vessel movements and identify suspicious activities such as "dark vessels" that turn off their transponders to avoid surveillance. This allows us and our partners to target enforcement efforts more effectively.

3. Training and Capacity Building: We provide training for local law enforcement officials in surveillance techniques, boarding procedures, marine conservation issues, and legal protocols for prosecuting offenders. This empowers local authorities to sustain enforcement and conservation efforts independently.

4. Public Awareness: While it’s incredibly important to be on the frontlines using direct action to combat IUU fishing, it’s also crucial to document it. Not many people, including lawmakers, let alone the public, have the access that we do. Our social media reach, documentaries, and press coverage raise awareness on the issues of IUU fishing and its impacts on marine ecosystems and coastal communities, mobilizing public support for stronger regulations and empowering consumers to make more informed decisions. We’ve been featured on prominent platforms and documentaries such as Netflix's "Seaspiracy," Animal Planet's "Ocean Warriors," National Geographic's "Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller," and Sir David Attenborough's "A Perfect Planet.” Our stories have also been featured in publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker, shining an important spotlight on what’s really happening at sea, and previously hidden from public scrutiny.

5. Advocacy for Policy Change: Advocating for stronger national and international policies is crucial. Engaging with policymakers, stakeholders, and international bodies to push for stricter regulations, higher penalties for offenders, and increased funding for enforcement can drive significant changes. Sea Shepherd's collaboration with governments to amend and enforce fishing laws exemplifies the impact of sustained advocacy efforts.

Highlights from Sea Shepherd’s IUU Campaigns

Our work in Africa began in 2016 with a partnership in Gabon to combat IUU fishing. This successful collaboration validated our strategy and paved the way for further partnerships. Since then, we have partnered with the governments of Liberia, Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe, Tanzania, Benin, Namibia, and The Gambia. Recently, we extended our IUU partnerships outside of Africa to include Tuvalu in the South Pacific.

As of 2024, Sea Shepherd has assisted our partners across Africa in the arrest of 98 vessels. More importantly, these patrols have proven to be a powerful deterrent to further incursions of IUU operators. James Logan, one of the local fishermen in Liberia, said about Sea Shepherd’s presence: “When the big boat shows up, the trawlers leave.”

This method of deterrence has been proven in anti-poaching efforts on land, but we are the only organization that has brought it to the sea. It’s hard to overstate just how impactful even a day is being on patrol in previously unpatrolled waters - every single day that an arrested vessel is detained in port or refrains from fishing out of fear of arrest, their nets are not in the water, which equates to tens of thousands of fish remaining in the water per day, per trawler.

Here are just a few of the notable results from our patrols:

1. Gabon - Suspension of Shrimp Fishery: In 2021, the Minister of Fisheries in Gabon joined us aboard to witness firsthand what was happening at sea. During one boarding, a shrimp fishing boat had an estimated catch of 0.2% shrimp to 99.8% bycatch by weight, with most of the bycatch being thrown overboard dead. This prompted the Minister to immediately suspend the entire shrimp fishery in Gabon to allow the waters to recover.

2. Liberia A Half Million Sharks Per Year Saved: One of the significant successes in our campaign with the Liberian Coast Guard was the arrest of the internationally-blacklisted vessel Labiko 2 in 2017. This vessel, which had been using prohibited deep-water gillnets, was found with a shark liver oil production facility on board capable of processing over 500,000 sharks per year. This operation highlighted the devastating impact of the unregulated shark liver oil industry and demonstrated the effectiveness of our joint patrol efforts. In 2019 Sea Shepherd Global was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), the highest military award given by the Ministry of National Defense and the Armed Forces of Liberia, recognizing exceptional service to the Republic of Liberia.

3. Benin - Record Penalties for Illegal Fishing: We began working in Benin in 2019, assisting the government with the arrest of three ships fishing illegally inside a marine park. These were the first arrests in Benin for illegal fishing, and the perpetrators were prosecuted and given the maximum penalty of a $50,000 fine. This case spurred legal reforms, increasing penalties for IUU fishing to over $1,000,000. Two years later, we assisted in the arrest of another two ships, which were prosecuted under the amended law. Each ship was fined over $250,000, and the captains were sentenced to 11 months of imprisonment. Since then, no further cases of illegal fishing have been detected in Benin.

4. The Gambia - Deterrence of Illegal Fishing: The Gambia's waters have been particularly vulnerable to IUU fishing activity. Out of the 98 vessels arrested for illegal fishing through our partnerships across Africa, 34 were apprehended in The Gambia. In early 2024 we assisted in the arrest of eight industrial trawlers, seven which were fishing inside of a Special Management Area reserved for artisanal fishermen (and where industrial fishing is outlawed), four which were using fishing nets with undersized mesh size, and all which had stopped transmitting their positions via the mandatory Automatic Identification System (AIS). In past patrols, vessels were found with hidden shark fins onboard, using illegal nets, and falsely labelling boxes of fish for export to the European market as “Sustainable Certified”.

5. Sierra LeoneMass Exodus of Illegal Fishing Vessels: During our patrol in Sierra Leone in 2023, we saw 70 ships head back to port the moment we started patrolling, as they knew they wouldn’t pass a boarding. “I remember watching a parade of ships—dozens and dozens of them—filing into the Port of Freetown, because inspections were underway. The combined fishing efforts of seventy ships ground to a stop for the duration of the mission. It is the belief of Sea Shepherd Global that none of them had valid fishing licenses,” said Captain Peter Hammarstedt.

Dead sharks discovered during inspection of the Labiko 2 in Liberia for Operation Sola Stella. Photo Melissa Romao/Sea Shepherd.

How We Choose the Countries We Work With

We approach our relationships with care, sensitivity, and a service-oriented mentality, which has led to our partner governments advocating on our behalf to new potential partners. This continued patience and trust are crucial for achieving our goal of being a leading voice in conservation and legislative reform.

Sea Shepherd strategically partners with countries based on several criteria to ensure our efforts have the greatest impact. We assess the potential partner's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), considering factors such as the prevalence of illegal fishing, the importance of their biodiversity, and economic impact on coastal communities. We evaluate the country's commitment to conservation and willingness to engage in partnership, prioritizing strong political will and collaboration readiness. We also consider whether partnering with the country would allow us to great impact on future conservation policies and create protected areas, leading to broader conservation efforts and policy reforms. Finally, we assess whether the partnership would open doors to other high-impact areas, encouraging neighboring countries to collaborate with us.

Sea Shepherd crew on patrol with local partners in Benin. Photo Rebecca Griffiths/Sea Shepherd.

How Your Support Can Help Us Continue the Fight Against IUU Fishing

Sea Shepherd’s successful track record in reducing IUU fishing activities in collaboration with various governments demonstrates the effectiveness of our approach. However, to continue and expand our critical work, we require additional funds. This is how your support can make a profound difference in our fight against illegal fishing and its devastating impacts on marine ecosystems and coastal communities:

1. Expanding Our Reach: Your contribution will enable us to extend our operations to new regions heavily impacted by IUU fishing. By reaching more vulnerable areas, we can protect vital marine ecosystems and support coastal communities.

2. Enhancing Our Fleet and Technology: Donations will allow us to maintain and upgrade our vessels, equipping them with the latest technology for tracking and surveillance. This advanced equipment will significantly improve our ability to detect and respond to illegal activities, ensuring more effective enforcement.

3. Increasing Patrols and Capacity Building: With your support, we can increase the frequency and duration of our patrols, providing a consistent enforcement presence that deters illegal operators. Additionally, we can enhance our training and capacity-building programs, empowering local enforcement officials with the skills and knowledge needed to sustain anti-IUU fishing efforts independently.

4. Supporting New Partnerships: Establishing new partnerships requires initial investment in relationship-building, legal agreements, and logistical planning. Your funds will help us forge new collaborations with governments committed to combating IUU fishing, broadening our impact, and promoting sustainable fisheries management worldwide.

This is how you can join us in protecting our oceans and ensuring a sustainable future for all marine life and coastal communities. Your donation can be the decisive factor in our continued fight against IUU fishing. Together, we can turn the tide and secure a healthier, more abundant ocean for generations to come.


Photo by Oktay Kaya for Sea Shepherd.
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