Armed and masked, scouring the oceans, stealing food from hungry families – modern-day pirates are a far cry from the glamour of Hollywood movies. But they are a multi-billion-dollar reality for many communities that can least afford to be robbed.
Pirate fishing – known by its less colourful name of ‘illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing’ – is the scourge of the oceans. It takes food and income from small subsistence communities and destroys marine environments.
A Greenpeace activist chains himself to MV Lung Yuin's anchor chain with a banner reading "FA, Investigate Now.” Greenpeace is preventing the departure of the fish carrier, demanding that Taiwan's Fisheries Agency properly investigate and as appropriate, prosecute the ship’s owners, who are in apparent breach of Taiwan’s laws.
From the islands of the South Pacific to the coasts of West Africa, the pirate fishermen are fishing illegally, without licenses and regulations. They bring their catch to European and Asian ports, netting millions of dollars in profit – money which rightfully belongs to coastal communities. The United Nations estimates that Somalia loses hundreds of millions a year to pirate fishing. Globally billions is lost each year.
How to be a pirate
Fictional pirates parade their “skull and cross bones.” Real life pirates hide their identity and origin, ignore the rules and often fly the flags of countries that ask no questions about their fishing. With the click of a computer mouse, for as little as US$500, flags can be bought over the internet from countries like Malta, Panama, Belize, Honduras and St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Despite various international commitments, governments around the world do little to check the activities of pirate fishers, or what is landed in their own ports. The pirate booty is often illegally transferred at sea to reefers (factory ships), mixed with legally caught stocks and then knowingly sold in “legitimate” ports like Las Palmas and Suva.
Illegal Fish Transfer in the Pacific Ocean
Two Taiwanese longline ships, the Her Hae and the Jia Yu Fa, were caught on camera by Greenpeace illegally transferring fish at sea. The transfer of fish at sea is one of the methods used around the world to cover up pirate fishing.
Who are the victims?
The victims of this wholesale robbery are usually the nations that are the least able to enforce the laws in their own waters. The victims are also the coastal communities that fish for a living, on small boats, using traditional methods. As pirates and fishing industries decimate the fish stocks, these fishing communities are left with smaller and smaller catches.
Pirate fishing compounds the global environmental damage from other destructive fisheries. Because they operate, quite literally, off the radar of any enforcement, the fishing techniques they use are destroying ocean life.
Tuna stocks around Papua New Guinea and Tuvalu in the Pacific are targeted each year with giant nets that scoop up entire shoals, including the young fish vital for breeding and future stock growth. Those that won’t make money on the market are thrown back dead – for subsistence fisher people, these unwanted fish would have been valuable for food and income.
Make piracy history
Pirate fishing can be stopped. The owners and operators are not impossible to track down. Around 80 different countries play host to them – including Taiwan, the European Union, Panama, Belize and Honduras. International enforcement could shut down this trade.
Governments can outlaw flags of convenience and refuse entry to fishing and supply vessels. It is a matter of political will to deliver the kind of enforcement that is needed to protect the marine environment and the communities that depend upon it.
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