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Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing

image of a dolphin and a turtle with a net representing Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing threatens the stability  of marine fisheries, decreases food security of coastal communities, and poses increased risk to endangered and protected species. This issue is far reaching. In  the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries's 2021 Report to Congress on Improving International Fisheries Management 31 nations and entities were identified as having vessels engaged in IUU fishing or bycatch of protected species on the high seas.

Poaching and overfishing have increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has pushed more local fisher and people living in poverty, into IUU practices due to limited economic opportunity. Worldwide, IUU fishing accounts for around 20 percent of global catch; in certain countries, that number is closer to 50 percent.

The modern fisheries sector is globalized, industrialized, and integrated into the worldwide financial market. Like most other economic sectors, it is exposed to organized crime.

Unfortunately, there is a significant overlap between IUU fishing practices and the use of forced labor. In many cases, crew members are recruited under false pretenses and trapped into debt bondage. For instance, recruitment agencies may charge exorbitant fees, which require crew members to take a loan from the recruitment agency. These recruitment agencies may hold workers’ land titles or families as collateral, compelling the fishers to stay and work on the fishing vessel, while getting paid almost nothing.  Due to the isolation of deep-sea vessels, other serious mistreatment such as physical abuse, violence, and excessive overtime are common forms of forced labor that take place aboard IUU fishing vessels.

In May 2021, CBP issued a Withhold Release Order against the Chinese fishing fleet Dalian Ocean Fishing Co. Ltd., based on information reasonably indicating the use of all 11 forced labor indicators in the entity’s fishing operations. At least six workers died on the Dalian fishing fleet due to abusive working conditions. Dalian Fleet vessels also committed wildlife crimes by practicing illegal shark finning, where crews remove the fins of sharks before dumping the rest of the animal back into the ocean, leaving it to die. Shark finning is highly regulated and prohibited in many countries and jurisdictions due to the harmful impact it has on the marine ecosystem.  

It is critical to protect endangered species and to stop overfishing to preserve the ocean ecosystem and biodiversity. CITES regulates many marine species such as cetaceans, corals, sea horses, sharks, rays and many more. CITES sets the legal framework for international trade in these species to ensure they are not over exploited through trade. The vaquita porpoise is a well-known victim of IUU Fishing. According to recent reports, there may be fewer than 10 vaquitas remaining in the Upper Gulf of California. Gillnets and other illegal fishing gear used to illegally fish for totoaba fish and shrimp are the primary cause of vaquita and sea turtle mortality. These animals become trapped  in nets as bycatch and drown. The totoaba is known as the “cocaine of the sea”, as it is illegally fished in Mexico and commands exorbitant prices in East Asian markets where it is sold as a symbol of wealth and to make traditional soups and medicines.  

Determining whether seafood is accurately labeled is difficult for consumers, but also for the experts. With a growing suite of tools from inspections and criminal investigations to traceability systems, and genetic analysis, regulators and industry are cracking down on seafood fraud. Species name and country of origin falsification are classic fraud schemes. Mislabeling seafood and concealing illegally caught fish evades inspection fees, permits, and other business costs that affect the price of responsibly caught seafood. Common ways that criminals hide the true country of origin of their catch typically include two methods: Transshipping, when seafood products are exported through different countries to avoid duties and tariffs, and at-sea transfers, in which illegal fishing vessels transfer their catch to cargo vessels carrying legitimately caught seafood.

CBP is more than ever committed to combating illegal fishing because of its direct  convergence with serious crimes like forced labor, drug trafficking, money laundering, and wildlife trafficking. 


With new and growing partnerships and evolving technologies, CBP is working with other federal agencies, including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and partners in the seafood supply chain to safeguard the sustainability and integrity of seafood in the U.S. marketplace. CBP is enhancing its targeting tools; increasing its targeting activities, audits, and enforcement operations; training its workforce; and working with the trade community to increase awareness about the urgent need to stop products from IUU fishing from entering the U.S. 

Last Modified: Jan 10, 2023