Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing: an introduction

eco-rewards unpacked

Have you ever heard of IUU fishing? It stands for “Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated” fishing, and it’s a huge problem that’s affecting our oceans and the people who depend on them. It is also a problem that one of our faithful readers noticed was missing from our piece about the leatherback turtle. And so, we decided to take this chance to talk a bit more in-depth about this topic and how the projects we help support contribute to mitigating the issue.

What does IUU fishing do?

IUU fishing occurs both on the high seas and in areas within national jurisdiction and can come in all shapes and sorts. It captures all aspects and stages of fisheries and it can be related to many different scales of fishing, from lone artisanal fishermen to industrial fishing vessels. It usually means fishing in off-limits areas or using problematic gear that causes huge negative effects on aquatic ecosystems but is not only limited to that.

For example, catching fish in nursery territories – like estuaries and mangrove forests – can compromise fish populations by removing entire generations from the genetic pool, making it so that the local population can no longer perpetuate itself. Gillnets can capture organisms that are legally protected since they basically consist of a wall made of a fishing net with no selectivity or adaptations to allow key species to split through. Bottom trawlers, usually deployed in industrial fishing drag weighted nets across the ocean floor, destroying several seabed habitats which, contrary to popular belief, is very far from being like a desert and is actually quite biodiverse!

Gillnet example under the ocean

What does that have to do with sea turtles?

Sea turtles are migratory animals. They cross oceans to forage, breed, and escape winter temperatures since they can’t keep themselves warm and their metabolism going like us, warm-blooded humans. The problem is that the trip is not easy, and IUU fishing can make it even harder in several aspects. IUU fishing can directly impact sea turtle populations by simply fishing them out as bycatch. This is one of the most critical impacts of IUU fishing on sea turtles. Certain types of fishing gear that are banned or restricted because they are known to be particularly harmful to sea turtles are still used by IUU fishermen. For example, gillnets and longlines can be especially deadly to turtles if not managed or modified correctly. That gear captures not only the targeted fish but also unintentionally catches sea turtles.

Habitat destruction is another prominent negative effect of IUU fishing on sea turtles. Many IUU fishermen use blast fishing to catch fish in shallow waters. That means using explosives to stun or kill the fish, which once numb float up to the surface and can be easily caught by hand. It has caused the destruction of many coral reefs as it is an artisanal fishing technique that has been recently banned in many countries around the globe but is not quite gone. Coral reefs are an important habitat not just for fish and anemones, but also for juvenile turtles. They spend their development time around reefs since their structure offers physical protection and harbors many organisms that serve as food.

The role of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) serve as a critical tool in the fight against Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing by establishing designated oceanic zones where fishing activities are either restricted or entirely prohibited. These protected zones not only help conserve marine biodiversity but also provide a manageable framework for enforcing fishing regulations. By restricting access and carefully monitoring these areas, authorities can more effectively control fishing activities, making it easier to identify and take action against IUU fishing operations. The presence of MPAs can act as a deterrent to illegal fishers, who may avoid these well-monitored areas in favor of less regulated waters.

Furthermore, MPAs support the recovery and sustainability of fish stocks by protecting critical habitats and breeding grounds, which can be severely impacted by IUU fishing. This regeneration of marine ecosystems can lead to spillover benefits, where increased fish populations within MPAs extend into adjacent fishing areas, supporting local and commercial fisheries.

By involving local communities in the management and benefits of MPAs, these areas can promote greater compliance and participation in sustainable fishing practices, creating allies in the fight against IUU fishing. In essence, MPAs not only shield marine life from direct exploitation but also foster a healthier, more resilient marine environment that undercuts the economic incentive behind IUU fishing.

Tuna bait ball

Check out the MPAs that we help support in this link and if you’d like to know more about the MPAs your digital actions are helping support, feel free to hop on over to our partner’s website, Coral Reef Alliance. They have tons of materials on all of the activities and benefits these MPAs provide.

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