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Illegal Fishing


One key dimension of the overfishing crisis is illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. It occurs across all types of fisheries, whether under national jurisdiction or on the high seas, small scale to large industrialized operations. Illegal fishing accounts for an estimated 20% of the world’s catch and as much as 50% of the catch in some fisheries.

Illegal fishers use various strategies to evade apprehension by authorities and ignore the laws and agreements that protect fish and other marine species. They often disguise the origin of their illegal catch so well that it is sold legitimately into consumer markets—mainly in Japan, the EU, the U.S. and other developed countries.

Because fishing operations occur far from the eyes of consumers and regulators, more transparent and traceable fishing practices are necessary. WWF is working with partners towards a fully traceable seafood supply chain and more responsible fisheries management.

Illegal Fishing Puts Crab Populations at Risk

A new WWF study has revealed populations of crab in the Russian Far East are at risk of collapse due to overharvest from illegal fishing.

pulling in crab pot


Illegal fishing driven by number of factors. Intense competition exists among large numbers of fishing vessels chasing relatively few fish. That, coupled with weak enforcement against illegal fishing and weak penalties, creates little incentive to stay within regulations. Ultimately, illegal fishing occurs because it remains profitable and largely invisible to governments, merchants and consumers. What happens out on the water is too often left unmonitored. And once fish products leave the boat, they are often difficult or impossible to track through the supply chain.


Illegal fishing lies outside protective management and conservation rules, and so contributes directly to the overexploitation of fish stocks. Poachers destroy marine habitats through their unregulated use of damaging, and sometimes illegal, fishing practices.

The costs of illegal fishing are significant, with the value of illegal fish products estimated at between $10-23.5 billion annually. This is a major loss of income to coastal countries and communities. This is especially the case for some of the world's poorest countries, which depend on fishing for food, livelihoods and revenues. Illegal fishing undermines legitimate competition, driving down prices and robbing opportunities from those that abide by the regulations.

What WWF Is Doing

Pirate Fishing

MSC-certified mackerel

Solutions to illegal fishing involve responsible fisheries management, such as vessel licensing and catch documentation. WWF helps countries implement policies that protect fish stocks and provide coastal communities with a higher—and sustainable—standard of living.

WWF promotes stronger enforcement against illegal fishing, working in the U.S. towards strengthening and reforming rules to prevent pirate fishing imports and create full traceability of fisheries products.

Our work with seafood business partners also aims to improve the sustainability of fisheries management. We helped establish the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which rewards sustainable fishing, and harnesses consumer and retailer purchasing power to promote environmentally responsible practices. WWF partners with other non-governmental organizations to help fisheries around the world achieve MSC certification.


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