Pirate Fishing

Page - January 17, 2008
Armed and masked, scouring the oceans, stealing food from hungry families – modern day pirates are a far cry from the glamor 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 colorful name: illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – is the scourge of the oceans. It leaves communities without much needed food and income and the marine environment smashed and empty. In 2001 Greenpeace estimated there were at least 1,300 industrial scale pirate fishing ships at sea.

pirate fishing

Stolen fish, stolen futures

From the islands of the South Pacific, to the coastal communities of West Africa, the pirate fishermen, who then claim their profits in European and Asian ports, are netting millions of dollars in much needed income which rightfully belongs to coastal communities. The United Nations estimates that Somalia loses $300 million a year to the pirates; Guinea loses $100 million. Globally more than $4 billion is lost each year.

How to be a pirate

The "skull and cross bones" easily identifies fictional pirates. In contrast, 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 $500, flags can be bought over the internet from countries like Malta, Panama, Belize, Honduras and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Pirate police?

Far from policing the rogue traders, governments around the world do little to check their activities or what is landed in their own ports, despite the various international commitments and plans. The pirate booty is often illegally transferred to factory ships, mixed with legally caught stocks and then knowingly sold in "legitimate" ports like Las Palmas and Suva.

The countries that are the victims of this wholesale robbery are usually those that are least able to enforce the laws in their own waters. But the owners and operators are not impossible to track down. Around 80 different countries play host to them - including the European Union and Taiwan, Panama, Belize and Honduras. International enforcement could shut down this trade.

Environmental destruction

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 Tanzania, Somalia, Papua New Guinea and Tuvalu 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, but could still provide food and income for others are thrown back dead.

Bycatch from longlining is another hazard, as is shrimp trawling. One film of shrimp trawling shows fishermen filling a few small boxes with the target catch and shoveling tons of unwanted fish and sea life back over the side.


Pirate fishing can be stopped. 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.  At the supermarket level, seafood buyers for supermarkets can insist on chain of custody from vessel through to the supplier or broker with whom the seafood buyer does business.