Why unregulated fishing remains a challenge in Africa


260 kilograms of fish were recovered from four individuals who were arrested by the police for possession of fish suspected to have been illegally fished from Lake Nakuru during a crackdown on illegal fishing conducted by a multi-agency team comprising KWS and police officers on March 5, 2024. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Outside maritime circles, the loathed Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated (IUU) fishing is least understood and its effects less reported, analysed or interpreted in nations that bear the brunt of the multi-trillion-shilling loss caused by the trade.

Kenya, Somalia and Tanzania fall on the richest fishing waters of the long, uninterrupted coastline of the Indian Ocean's eastern seaboard that is one of the most robbed of abundant fish stocks by IUU.

Solutions are direly needed but many technicalities and lack of intention to tame IUU by development culprits cause the illegalities to thrive. The full impact of the loss may never be documented due to under-reporting, disguise of illegal activity as legal and lack of enforcement muscle by disadvantaged nations.

Globally, IUU is estimated to be worth between US$26 billion and US$50 billion annually, but this may be an understatement, as catches are diverted away from legitimate systems. The Indian Ocean is the second-most productive ocean for fisheries, supporting the second-largest tuna fishery in the world. Unlike other oceans, Indian Ocean artisanal fisheries – relatively low-tech vessels ranging from non-mechanised pirogues that fish for subsistence to trawlers, long liners, gill-netters, or purse seiners that are under 24 metres in overall length – are responsible for a greater proportion (56 per cent) of average annual tuna catches, and around 93 percent of the neritic and 37 per cent of tropical tuna (yellowfin, skipjack and bigeye) catches.

These small-scale fisheries support livelihoods, local economies and boost the food security of coastal and small-island developing states. It is noteworthy, however, that the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) provides a much wider margin for what it considers “artisanal fisheries’’, compared with other Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs), such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which defines this sector as vessels under 12 metres in length – IOTC recognises vessels as double this size as “artisanal” or “small-scale”. 

The Automatic Idenfication System (AIS) data can reveal apparent fishing effort by specific vessels within marine protected areas (MPAs), Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and even on the high seas, which can potentially identify fishing that is illegal or unregulated (or a combination of the two) depending on the national or regional regulations.

Trade data can highlight discrepancies between the reported fishery exports of a nation and the reported imports of their corresponding trade partners, which can be an indication of unreported (or misreported) catches, in addition to exposing inadequate trade documentation. These findings can indicate a need to either change how policies are enforced due to persisting discrepancies or to sanction the operators involved in IUU fishing, if confirmed.

During the assessment of what is termed Distant Water Fishing Nation (DWFN) presence within the South Western Indian Ocean (SWIO) and any potential IUU fishing activity linked to these fleets for the same period, discrepancies in trade reporting between DWFN fleets and the SWIO nations were identified to highlight possible market opportunities for seafood products derived from IUU fishing.

Identifying key DWFNs and their potential IUU fishing impacts within a region could reveal policy. For now IUU, it appears, will still thrive beyond the ocean horizon, as a known problem with no known solutions.

The writer is a communications expert