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Modern Piracy: IUU Fishing, the Hidden Menace


Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, also known as pirate fishing, is a clandestine activity that poses a significant threat to our world’s oceans, marine biodiversity, and global economies. Conducted without proper authorization, documentation, or adherence to established fishing regulations, IUU fishing not only undermines sustainable fishing practices but has severe implications for marine ecosystems and coastal communities. In this article, we will delve into its global prevalence, the environmental and economic threats it presents, efforts made by countries to combat it, and the crucial role of High-Frequency Surface Wave Radar (HFSWR) in protecting against this illicit practice.

IUU fishing refers to any fishing activity that violates national, regional, or international laws, regulations, and conservation measures. This includes operating without proper licenses, exceeding established quotas, targeting protected species, or engaging in destructive angling methods. IUU fishing includes unreported and underreported catches, activities which makes it difficult to assess the true extent of its impact on marine resources. Driven by profit-seeking and lack of oversight, this type of fishing is leading to serious consequences for our marine environment and the global fishing industry.

Not in my backyard…

Regrettably, IUU fishing is ubiquitous, a widespread problem that occurs in both high seas and territorial waters everywhere. No ocean is immune to this piracy. Certain regions are particularly notorious for IUU fishing due to lax enforcement, corruption, and limited surveillance. Southeast Asian waters, including the South China Sea, are hotspots for IUU fishing due to the vast expanse of fishing grounds and complex maritime boundaries. The coasts of West Africa are also significantly affected, where foreign vessels exploit weak governance and poor monitoring to plunder fish stocks, and in the waters of South America, particularly off the coast of Peru and Chile where prized species like the Patagonian toothfish are targeted illegally.

Beyond the criminality, IUU fishing poses a grave environmental threat to marine ecosystems and biodiversity. The unregulated and destructive fishing practices used by illegal operators lead to overfishing and depletion of fish stocks, disrupting the delicate balance of marine food chains. The world is witnessing declines in fish populations and the collapse of vulnerable species, negatively impacting other marine organisms, seabirds and marine mammals that depend on these stocks for food. IUU fishing often employs destructive fishing methods such as bottom trawling, which indiscriminately destroys marine habitats like coral reefs and seafloor ecosystems. The resulting damage can take years or decades to recover, and in some cases permanent alterations in our marine environment. A severe consequence of IUU fishing is the targeting of protected species, such as sharks and endangered marine mammals. These animals play vital roles in their ocean environment, and their decline has cascading effects on the overall health of marine ecosystems.

Real Economic Threats

The economic implications of IUU fishing are far-reaching and multifaceted. Legitimate fishing industries suffer as illegal operators undermine their efforts, diminish catches, and reduce profits. IUU fishing leads to lost revenue for coastal communities that rely on fishing for their livelihoods: When fish stocks are depleted or when fishing activities become unsustainable, local communities are deprived of their primary source of income and food security. As many countries have learned, IUU fishing facilitates organized crime and corruption as illegal operators engage in money laundering, tax evasion, and human rights abuses on fishing vessels. These illicit activities can undermine governance and the rule of law in affected regions, exacerbating social and political instability.

How to fight back?

Addressing IUU fishing requires a concerted effort at both national and international levels. Countries around the world are implementing various measures to combat this illegal activity and protect their marine resources. Key strategies include:

  1. Improved Reconnaissance: Enhanced monitoring and surveillance of fishing activities are critical to detecting and deterring IUU fishing. This includes increasing the use of satellite technology, vessel monitoring systems, and aerial patrols.
  2. Cooperation and Regional Agreements: Collaboration between countries is crucial in combating IUU fishing, as it often involves vessels operating across international boundaries. Regional agreements and organizations facilitate data sharing, joint patrols, and coordinated actions against illegal operators.
  3. State initiated Port Measures: Implementing port control rules and regulations allow countries to deny entry and services to vessels suspected of engaging in IUU fishing, effectively closing markets for illegally caught fish.

An Essential Starting Point

Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) serves as the essential starting point for efforts to combat IUU fishing and other illicit maritime activities. MDA encompasses the ability to gather, integrate, and analyze information from various sources to gain a comprehensive understanding of maritime activities within a specific region. By establishing effective MDA systems, countries monitor their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) more efficiently, enabling prompt detection and response to potential threats.

Reliable MDA provides a foundation for effective decision-making and resource allocation. By having a clear picture of maritime activities, authorities can identify patterns, detect anomalies, and prioritize areas that require increased surveillance and enforcement. This proactive approach helps direct limited and expensive resources to where they are most needed, optimizing the effectiveness of maritime security efforts. MDA fosters international cooperation by enabling information sharing among countries, creating a collaborative network for combating cross-border maritime threats like IUU fishing, and it has been demonstrated that  enhanced situational awareness empowers nations to coordinate responses and conduct joint operations, ensuring a more unified and cohesive effort in safeguarding marine resources and coastal communities.

Efficient MDA strengthens the overall effectiveness of maritime law enforcement and regulatory measures. Leveraging advanced technologies such as radar systems, AIS, satellite imagery, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), MDA allows for real-time tracking and monitoring of vessels operating in the maritime domain. This timely information aids in identifying IUU fishing vessels and facilitates detection of other illicit activities such as human trafficking, smuggling, and piracy. A successful MDA provides critical data for evidence gathering, streamlining the process of apprehending and prosecuting violators of maritime laws. The transparency and accuracy offered by MDA systems instill a sense of accountability among both legitimate and illegal maritime actors, acting as a strong deterrent against engaging in IUU fishing practices.

The Backbone of a National MDA Strategy

High-Frequency Surface Wave Radar (HFSWR) technology, such as the Maerospace PASE® radar plays a crucial role in combatting IUU fishing by enhancing maritime surveillance and detection capabilities. Unlike coastal radar systems, HFSWR covers vast areas of ocean in real-time, making it highly effective in monitoring large fishing grounds and detecting unauthorized or suspiciously acting vessels.

HFSWR works by transmitting radio waves that diffract along the ocean’s surface, allowing the sensor to operate over the horizon and detect ships, even those with their Automatic Identification System (AIS) or Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) compromised. This is particularly valuable for identifying and tracking IUU fishing vessels, which often try to evade detection by switching off their AIS or VMS devices. Radar provides data on vessel movement, speed and direction, enabling authorities to distinguish between legitimate fishing activities and suspicious IUU behavior. The timely and accurate information provided by HFSWR aids in the coordination of enforcement actions, facilitating the apprehension of illegal operators and seizure of their catch.

All technologies contribute to a thorough MDA. Coastal microwave radars cannot “see” beyond the horizon, and patrol aircraft and boats are expensive to operate and are needed for interdiction. Satellite technologies only orbit over areas of interest intermittently and optical satellites are often blocked by clouds. An HFSWR system provides continuous coverage of 41,000 square nautical miles, making HFSWR systems the most cost-effective means of providing persistent surveillance coverage of a large area of ocean territory. Tracks detected by HFSWR can be investigated by correlating with low-cost satellite data, highlighting “dark targets” with no identification, as AIS and VMS require ships to be cooperating and transmitting properly. Once identified, aircraft and patrol boats can be used efficiently to interdict suspicious vessels.

The answer is clear…

IUU fishing poses a significant threat to marine ecosystems, marine biodiversity, and global economies, as it undermines the efforts of sustainable fisheries management and deprives coastal communities of their livelihoods. To effectively combat this menace, nations must strengthen their legal frameworks, improve monitoring and surveillance, and foster international cooperation. In the fight against IUU fishing, High-Frequency Surface Wave Radar (HFSWR) technology emerges as the most critical tool for protecting marine resources. Its ability to monitor vast oceans in real-time and detect suspicious vessels makes it an indispensable base for modern Maritime Domain Awareness. The battle against IUU fishing is ongoing, requiring continued vigilance, collaboration, and technological innovation. By adopting comprehensive strategies and leveraging advanced technologies, maritime authorities can safeguard the health of our oceans and ensure the sustainability of the fishing industry for generations to come.

Maerospace is the manufacturer and supplier of the PASE High Frequency Surface Wave Radar, an operationally deployed radar with 200+ nautical mile range, proven on 3 continents. The world leading PASE radar delivers Persistent Active Surveillance of the EEZ to combat illegal fishing, piracy, smuggling, and border threats. Maerospace combines radar systems with satellite data and analytics to help government and maritime companies make better decisions from more accurate detection of ship behavior. Our data products produce time-synchronized positions, behavior, and anomaly detection for all ships worldwide. Combining analytics, radar and satellite data produces world’s best maritime domain awareness solution.

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