The challenge of maintaining healthy populations of fish in the global economy is compounded by those who do not compete on a level playing field. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is the term used for a broad swath of the biggest obstacles to sustainable interaction between humans and the ecological systems of which fish are a part.
Estimates of worldwide bycatch range from 8-20% of total catch, and some reports of worldwide bycatch discards are over 27 million pounds. This overexploitation of ecosystems has serious impact on the integrity, diversity, and productivity of marine life, and could lead to the extinction of valuable species and the permanent loss of livelihoods for millions of fishers.
The U.S. system is not currently organized to verify seafood’s safety and origin through inspection as it moves through processing, packing, and distribution. In order to prevent fraud, consumers need to know where seafood comes from and be able to trace it all the way back to the sea. The huge tracking and enforcement gaps in U.S. seafood regulation provide ample opportunity for increased risks to public health and fish fraud, and encourages illegally caught fish to be sold in the marketplace.
Flags of Convenience (FOC) represent another means by which fishermen skirt conservation measures and responsible fishing management rules, and are a major obstacle in combating IUU fishing. Under international law, the country whose flag a vessel flies is responsible for oversight of its activities. However, certain countries allow any vessel to fly their flag for a few hundred dollars without any intent to exert responsible natural resource management. FOC countries are typically ones without the means to patrol their own waters or are not members of regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), and to which fishing regulations do not extend. Thus, pirate fishers use FOCs to conceal their operations and circumvent international rules and responsibilities designed to conserve and manage ocean resources. Further exacerbating the issue, registering for a FOC is quick, easy, and inexpensive, and can be done over the internet, which allows IUU crews to re-flag and change names several times in a season to duck authorities, a practice known as "flag hopping.”