Where and how seafood is caught has repercussions across sectors and borders

Illegal fishing practices are undermining cross-border security by making resources that are already limited due to the climate and nature crises even more scarce, a new report from WWF reveals. 

As the EU plans its recovery from Covid-19, a global health crisis that has called attention to key shortcomings in the global fisheries industry [1], it is critical to consider how the EU must tackle the illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities that put the recovery and resilience of many of the world’s important fish stocks at risk, threaten the food security of coastal communities and cloud the sustainability of the European seafood market. Globally, one in six fish on our plates is estimated to come from illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing [2]. 

WWF calls on EU policy makers to amend the European Fisheries Control Regulation – currently under revision – to promote better traceability of seafood products. A truly dissuasive system of sanctions that considers the full extent of damage done to the environment and to livelihoods tied to the fisheries sector, both within and beyond EU borders, is now imperative. The tools to achieve this are already at the disposal of government and industry, including the use of remote electronic monitoring (REM) to guarantee fully documented, transparent and traceable fishing, as well as the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) which can support better monitoring and control to keep fishing practices within sustainable limits.

Dr Antonia Leroy, Head of Ocean Policy at WWF European Policy Office said: “Despite EU rules, illegal fishing products continue to slip through the net. At a time when strength and unity are more crucial than ever, the EU must ensure that the stability of the EU and its trade partners is not threatened by unsustainable seafood trade.”

“As the EU revises our fishing laws and within the framework of the European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy, the EU must clamp down on illegal and unsustainable practices for good. All stakeholders along the supply chain, from governments to consumers, are responsible for supporting thriving coastal communities and a resilient ocean.”

The lack of transparency on fishing vessel activities can indirectly generate instability, the report shows. This is because major players, including EU Member States, do not implement fisheries management measures effectively; checks on vessel activities are irregular, with weak sanctions for vessels and nationals in violation of the rules. This incentivises unsustainable practices, which can lay the foundation for organised crime and corruption. Clarity about how seafood products reach the EU market is critical to achieving a Sustainable Blue Economy.

While the EU, the world’s largest seafood market, has established legislation to address issues around unsustainable seafood including the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the IUU Regulation, these have not fully barred entry of IUU fishing products to the European market [3]. Further, when not sustainably managed, the European fleet’s activities in third countries under the framework of Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements (SFPAs) contribute to overfishing, leading to a decline in resources available to local populations; the ensuing collapse of local industry and food security can become a determining factor in driving fishers to IUU fishing activities and the emigration of young people from fishing communities. A lack of traceability increases the risk of seafood from IUU fishing finding its way into supply chains which enter the EU market. Further, in certain Member States and EU overseas territories, IUU fishing contributes to criminal activities, such as drugs and human trafficking [4].  

The Coronavirus pandemic has had a strong impact on the fishing sector. In addition to cutting many fishers off from their sole income source, it has raised concerns about the potential exposure of on-board observers, crew members, inspectors and port workers to the virus. Simultaneously, many markets are reporting increased sales of non-perishable food such as canned seafood, which augments pressure on certain fish species [5]. 

There is an urgent need to protect marine life while ensuring that livelihoods and sea-dependent economies are not threatened by a lack of follow-up measures or control and monitoring of fishing activities once the crisis is over.


Notes to editors:

Access the full report, Seafood Sustainability, Stability & Security, online here.

The European Parliament Fisheries Committee is currently revising amendments made by its members to MEP Clara Aguilera’s report on the proposal for revision the EU Fisheries Control Regulation. The Committee is expected to vote on these amendments in October, followed by a European Parliament plenary vote before the end of the year.

WWF calls on the EU to:

  • Amend the European fisheries Control Regulation to create more dissuasive sanctions, introduce electronic monitoring (including CCTV) of vessels, and guarantee better digitised traceability of the seafood products we consume;
  • Amend the Regulation on the Common Organisation of the Markets of Fishery and Aquaculture Products to bring transparency to all seafood products available on the EU market;
  • Guarantee that seafood products available on the European market are ethical and fair, particularly when they are produced under partnership agreements with countries outside the EU;
  • Ensure that government support is only given to sustainable activities, shifting the focus from food production to the environmental benefits that contribute to an urgent ecological transition;
  • Embrace combating IUU fishing as a priority and take a leading role at the global level to bring it to an end.


[1] UN FAO, How is COVID-19 affecting the fisheries and aquaculture food systems, March 2020 http://www.fao.org/3/ca8637en/CA8637EN.pdf

[2] Agnew DJ, Pearce J, Pramod G, Peatman T, Watson R, Beddington JR, et al., Estimating the Worldwide Extent of Illegal Fishing. PLoS ONE 4(2): e4570, 2009 https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0004570 

[3] €12.5 million illegal bluefin tuna trade exposes threat to sustainable fisheries in Europe, October 2018 https://www.wwf.eu/?uNewsID=336830

[4] UNODC (2011), Transnational Organised Crime in the Fisheries Sector, Focus on : Trafficking in Persons, Smuggling of Migrants, Illicit Drugs Trafficking, 2011


[5] GLOBEFISH – Information and Analysis on World Fish Trade, March 2020 http://www.fao.org/in-action/globefish/news-events/details-news/en/c/1268337/;
UN FAO, How is COVID-19 affecting the fisheries and aquaculture food systems, March 2020 http://www.fao.org/3/ca8637en/CA8637EN.pdf