Building Coalitions to Stop Illegal Fishing in the Western Indian Ocean

Stakeholders in the Western Indian Ocean are joining together to share intelligence in the fight against illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.

Though the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) boasts high marine biodiversity and vast living marine resources, commercially important fisheries are under threat from overfishing and habitat degradation. This has caused economic uncertainty for large portions of the region’s human populations, which are dependent on coastal and marine resources for their livelihoods. Thirty-five percent of WIO fish stocks are fully exploited and 28 percent are overexploited, while over half the shark species are considered threatened and the valuable yellowfin tuna stock is in danger of collapse. 

Illegal fishing is sinking the blue economy

Part of this ecosystem decline is directly attributable to illegal fishing. Up to one-third of fishing in the WIO is either illegal, unreported, or unregulated (IUU), and with thousands of “authorized” vessels registered with the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, it can be difficult to discern the good actors from the bad unless they are caught in the act.

IUU fishing from industrial fishing vessels is inherently porous—fish caught illegally in one country may be landed in another. Fish, and increasingly the fishers who catch them, have no borders. They move from one exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to the next, from one oceanic hotspot to the next, often following the tuna migration.

It’s hard enough to track fishing vessels within EEZs and across the high seas, but making things even more difficult, vessels can offload illegally caught fish onto larger transshipment vessels at sea. Transshipment enables vessels to launder their landings by mixing them with legally caught fish before offloading the combined catch at distant ports. These practices undermine legal markets.

To protect the region’s blue economy, stronger fisheries regulations and management are critical, and establishing rule of law to combat IUU fishing is essential. But while individual states can strengthen fisheries regulations and improve fisheries management, multistate coalitions must collaborate to collect intelligence and investigate illegal actions that cross maritime borders.

Maritime domain awareness: A key to the fight

Maritime domain awareness (MDA), which the International Maritime Organization describes as “the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact security, safety, economy, or the environment,” is vital to combatting illegal fishing, creating maritime security, and developing the blue economy. Unfortunately, WIO coastal states have low capacity to achieve MDA. They often have few law enforcement vessels capable of patrolling their EEZs and lack effective navies, coast guards, or air forces capable of ensuring maritime rule of law.

According to Christian Bueger, professor of International Relations at Cardiff University, “Knowledge of what happens at sea, whether it is criminal activity or not, and an understanding of maritime patterns of life are essential to identify and prevent threats and to inform operations and policies. And high-quality intelligence is the backbone of law enforcement at sea, given the vast amount of space that must be covered through limited capacities.”

Some MDA functions in the WIO are provided by international actors like the European Union’s Naval Force Atalanta. These multilateral naval missions have responded to Somali-based piracy, conducted surveillance of regional waters, handled communications between law enforcement agencies, and coordinated responses to incidents or threats.

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has also been key in tackling maritime crimes in the WIO. At the fourth Our Ocean Conference last year in Malta, the UNODC’s chief Yury Fedotov said, “Piracy, drug trafficking, wildlife crime, armed robbery, human trafficking, migrant smuggling—all transnational organized crimes—represent a major threat to security and safety at sea and on land and the UNODC is committed to helping to disrupt [these] criminal activities.”

And while international actors have helped increase the region’s capacity to combat maritime crime, regional states have taken the lead in fighting illegal fishing. Increasingly this has been done through regional partnerships, not only through individual states but also through intergovernmental organizations such as the Indian Ocean Commission and Interpol, the FISH-i Africa Task Force, and NGOs like Secure Fisheries and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Regional coordination is critical

FISH-i Africa was formed in 2012 to improve cooperation and intelligence sharing between states to combat illegal fishing. The task force comprises eight countries—Comoros, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, Somalia, and Tanzania—that take legal action against illegal fishing vessels. Task force countries can access shared intelligence and information that can help identify and track down illegal operators in their EEZs.

The Djibouti Code of Conduct is another collaborative tool being used to combat illegal fishing and other threats to maritime security. This regional agreement for training and information sharing was initiated and supported by the International Maritime Organization and the EU’s Critical Maritime Routes Indian Ocean project and has led to three information-sharing centers in Yemen, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Additionally, the WIO’s Programme to Promote Regional Maritime Security, funded by the EU, will soon launch two regional centers that may play a role in fighting illegal fishing. The Regional Maritime Information Fusion Center in Madagascar will coordinate regional information exchange, and the Regional Centre for Operational Coordination in Seychelles will coordinate maritime operations, including joint enforcement actions on suspected illegal fishing vessels.

Caught Red-Handed

Even with the best mechanisms for information exchange in place, generating actionable intelligence on illegal fishing is a significant challenge. And more than ever, states are relying on technology to help track fishing vessels.

Several WIO states mandate the use of vessel-tracking technologies—like automatic identification systems and vessel monitoring systems—to monitor fishing vessels in real time. But these systems can be manipulated and turned off to disguise illegal activity.

And while there are other tools available for tracking illegal fishing—such as unmanned surface vessels, unmanned aerial vehicles, autonomous underwater vehicles, enforcement buoys, acoustic sensors, optical satellite imagery, and radar—these technologies are often unproven and cost-prohibitive to developing states.

Last year, Secure Fisheries and the UNODC assembled an expert working group to discuss strengthening human intelligence capabilities in the WIO. The group identified an urgent need to systematically increase the value, sophistication, and standardization of human intelligence gathering. The Caught Red-Handed project was born.

Throughout 2018, Secure Fisheries and the UNODC will convene a series of workshops to develop a harmonized guide for the collection of fishing vessel data by all coastal and island nations in the WIO. These workshops, supported by the US State Department, US Naval Forces Europe-Africa, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, will standardize the collection and communication of fishing vessel data to allow for increased fidelity and harmonization of data protocols and use.

Caught Red-Handed will then work with states to develop a system that links the flow of human intelligence with the key stakeholders—FISH-i Africa; the information-sharing centers in Yemen, Kenya, and Tanzania; the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Center in Madagascar, and the Regional Centre for Operational Coordination in Seychelles—so that human intelligence can be used by these stakeholders to successfully combat illegal fishing across the WIO.