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Illegal Fishing


bait to plate scene share

The US is one of the largest seafood markets for imported seafood—importing more than 5.3 billion pounds of seafood per year—worth almost $18 billion annually. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the seafood that hits our plates. Right now we simply cannot tell if the fish we eat was legally caught because our current laws are not strong enough to trace from bait to plate.

But there is great momentum for change. On June 17, 2014, a turning point for oceans was reached when in front of ocean leaders from more than 80 nations at the U.S. State Department’s “Our Ocean” conference, President Obama announced the creation of a new initiative to prevent illegally caught fish from reaching US markets.

A new Task Force was then established to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud. Co-chaired by the Secretaries of Commerce and State, the Task Force is charged with providing recommendations to the President within 180 days of the announcement. Based on these recommendations the President will issue guidance to the relevant agencies who will then begin drafting regulations for implementation.

With this influence in the market place the US can influence the global IUU fishing challenge by requiring the entire supply chain is fully traceable to legal sources. This will improve practices around the globe by those who hope to access the US market.

It just got harder for illegal fish to make it onto your plate

The US government released a final rule to increase the transparency around fishing operations and prevent tons of fish from being laundered into the US seafood market, a move more than 400,000 WWF activists took action to support.

Fish in a basket



Oceans support the livelihoods of an estimated 520 million people who rely on fishing and fishing related activities, and 2.6 billion people who depend on fish as an important part of their diet. But Illegal fishing is threatening the food supply of coastal communities as fish populations decline due to overfishing in areas fishers are not permitted to access. Addressing illegal fishing will positively contribute to the equitable growth and empowerment of the people who rely on oceans for food and income.


Illegal fishing is a key driver of global overfishing, it threatens marine ecosystems, puts food security and regional stability at risk, and is linked to major human rights violations and even organized crime.

The global supply chain is complex and weakly regulated and illegal fish can penetrate the supply chains quite easily. Once intermingled, illegal products are very difficult to detect. And, the U.S. is a huge, lucrative market which is often the destination for illegal fish.

Given its generally concealed nature, it is difficult to quantify, but the current estimates suggest the global losses of illegal fishing cost up to $23.5 billion annually.

What WWF Is Doing

Pirate Fishing

MSC-certified mackerel

Illegal fishing is a global challenge, but through a combination of governance, enforcement, technology and engagement—it is a problem for the world’s oceans that can be resolved.

Oceans Governance

WWF is working to engage key government stakeholders around a U.S. policy solution that clearly details a system of legality and traceability that includes catch documentation, full chain traceability and verification, to prevent illegal fish from entering into the US marketplace. WWF has provided testimony for public comment, and in partnership with TRAFFIC submitted recommendations to the Federal Register for Presidential Task Force on combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud.

Technology Solutions

WWF has found an inexpensive and effective way to retrace the routes and activities of fishing vessels. Through existing satellite data, we can reveal where illegal fishing activity may be taking place. The data is part of a widespread technology known as AIS (Automatic Identification System).

Onboard Surveillance

Fishing operations occur far from the eyes of consumers and regulators, often in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, swaths of unclaimed water beginning 200 miles off the coast. In response to this challenge WWF is in engaged in an innovative 5-year partnership with the Global Environment Facility, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and others. The project aims to install electronic monitoring systems aboard tuna purse seine vessels, which collects and shares information in real-time to provide better estimates of the tuna catch. This new technology integrates with traditional tools used for monitoring, control and surveillance of tuna fisheries.

Consumer Action

Illegal fishing is a global issue that affects everyone along the supply chain. It undercuts responsible fishers and businesses as illegal fish flood the market. WWF is working in partnership with many stakeholders, from fishers to business to governments, to help move the fisheries marketplace to stop illegal fish from entering the US and move towards a fully traceable seafood supply chain. But we can’t do it alone.