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. In December 2016, the US government officially established the Seafood Import Monitoring Program to address illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing products entering the market. The new rule, in effect as of Jan. 1, 2018, sets up reporting and record-keeping requirements for certain seafood products to prevent IUU-caught and/or misrepresented seafood from entering US commerce. This first phase of the program applies to an initial list of imported fish and fish products identified as particularly vulnerable to illegal fishing and fraud.

With its influence in the market place the US can lead 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. 

Why tracing seafood from sea to plate is the next frontier in sustainability

Seafood is one of the most frequently traded commodities on earth, so it’s essential that fishing is well-regulated around the world. But regulations must be complied with to be effective, and unfortunately, too much of the fish that comes to market is caught illegally.

A mahi mahi swims alone in deep blue water



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 US 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 $36.4 billion each year.

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).

A big data analysis web tool can help in the fight against illegal fishing. WWF and TRAFFIC partnered with Hewlett-Packard Enterprises to develop DETECT-IT, a web-based tool that looks at data tracking the movement of fish from port to port and country to country. The tool highlights any trade information that looks suspicious and possibly illegal. Through rapid, automated collection, it compares, and analyzes customs data from more than 170 countries.

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.


Traceability—the ability to track seafood from bait to plate—is one of the “must have” tools needed to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. WWF has been working with leaders in the public and private sectors to improve traceability in the seafood supply chain in the US and around the world. Now that we have a set of principles for traceability, it’s time to help industry implement best-in-class practices. But we can’t do it alone. 

WWF is collaborating with FishWiseFuture of Fish, and the Global Food Traceability Center on several projects to move the traceability agenda forward. We’re helping industry developed a unified framework to facilitate the flow of information through supply chains, engaging industry, developing practical tools, and modelling costs and benefits. The results will have real world implications for consumers and the countless communities that depend on sustainable fisheries.


  • Bringing fisheries forward

    WWF has been working to reduce IUU fishing for years and recognizes the necessity of widespread utilization of relevant technology throughout the fishing sector as one part of the solution.