This article is part of Evolving Threats to Southeast Asia’s Maritime Security, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

How has the IUU fishing threat evolved over the last 20 years?

While there are signs that the economic losses from Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUU Fishing) have decreased in the past decade, the threat has evolved.

ASEAN countries experienced over $6 billion in economic losses in 2019 from IUU Fishing, with Indonesia and Vietnam experiencing the largest.[1] Indonesia, the regional state with the largest territorial waters and EEZ, experienced a potential loss around $6.8 billion in 2015 and $201 billion between 2013-2018.[2] This number decreased to $74 million in 2021. This loss is a measurement of the potential catch of illegal fish based on number and the tonnage of estimated fishing vessels engaged in IUU fishing. The number of illegal fishing vessels captured by the Indonesian government also showed a significant decrease from 163 in 2016 to only 38 fishing vessels in 2019.[3] While this rose to 167 in 2021, these numbers remain much lower than 2014, when 930 illegal fishing vessels were captured in Indonesian waters.[4]

In part, this decrease in the estimated economic cost may result not from a decrease in IUU fishing, but more elusive IUU practices. It is easier to spot illegal fishing practices if they operate in territorial waters. Due to the rising concern of ASEAN countries, however, the practice of illegal fishing is now moving to Exclusive Economic Zones and international waters. These practices are harder to detect because it requires international cooperation and larger budgets to trace it.

Over the last ten years illegal fishing has been increasingly framed as a form of transnational organized crime. This is due to its linkages to other crimes, increasing organization, and incorporation of other criminal acts such as forced labor. The transnationality of fisheries crimes was clearly demonstrated in the 2015 case of Pusaka Benjina Resources, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands but financed out of Thailand who was found to have 1128 enslaved fishing crewmembers from Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.[5] [6]

Inhumane working practices, poor working conditions, and modern slavery were highlighted in a Greenpeace report on IUU fishing in 2019.[7] Fishers were found to have been forced to work long hours (up to 30 hour shifts) and to drink sea water.[8] The report also exposed 13 foreign fishing vessels that were implicated in illegal acts such as withholding the wages of fishing crew, long working hours, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. They also did not pay based on the contract, and in some cases did not pay at all.

Data from Taiwan Fishery Agency shows 21,994 migrant fishermen from Indonesia and 7,330 from the Philippines work for Taiwanese distant-water fishing vessels. In addition to that, the data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Indonesia, shows there are 1,451 cases of Indonesia migrant fishing crew who have made complaints about slavery, abuse, death, unpaid wages, and unfair and illegal practices.[9] While the number of illegal fishing vessels that are captured annually has significantly decreased, these challenges remain. Small-medium illegal fishing vessels (30-100 gross tonnage) are easier to spot and capture because they cannot sail for long and eventually will need to sail back to fill their fuel tank. In contrast, larger vessels provide challenges and obstacles to spot and catch because they can sail for months and will require more resources and vessels to catch.

What are the primary governance tools that are being used in response to the threat?

The broader framework that covers strengthening fishery sector as well combating IUU Fishing can be found within the ASEAN Guidelines for Preventing the Entry of Fish and Fishery Products From IUU Fishing Activities into the Supply Chain (2015), the Strategic Plan of Action on ASEAN Cooperation on Fisheries (2016 –2020), the Vision Strategic Plan for ASEAN Cooperation in Food, Agriculture and Forestry (2016-2025), Joint ASEAN-SEAFDEC Declaration on Regional Cooperation for Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Enhancing the Competitiveness of ASEAN Fish and Fishery Products (2016); Cooperation Framework on ASEAN Network for Combating Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated (IUU) Fishing (2020)[10].

ASEAN countries are actively conducting fishery diplomacy to encourage transparency of information to combat illegal fishing such as sharing information of the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) and Electronic Reporting System and Electronic Monitoring. With these tools, any member of ASEAN can spot and detect illegal and unreported fishing practices in their region without delays in reporting from another country. Each country needs balance international, regional, and national cooperation to combat illegal fishing, including through joint monitoring, inspection, and exchange of information[11]. Countries within ASEAN and the Asia Pacific should have intensive coordination to protect migrant ship crews, as well have bilateral cooperation with the country of placement.

Cooperation with international organizations to increase the capacity and knowledge of fishermen should be further implemented, because many fishers do not understand the broader consequences of their illegal practices. An example is destructive fishing, often undertaken due to their lack of understanding on the impact on sea ecology. Promising activities are undertaken, for example, by the Coral Triangle Initiative, who engage with local communities to promote sustainable fishing practices.[12] In terms of labor, providing clear guidance and supervision for fishers and companies that place migrant workers would address illegal recruitment practices which act as a facilitating condition of IUU fishing. The International Labour Organization has the Ship to Shore Rights project, for example, though such efforts should continue to develop their ability to reach local communities.

What are the primary harms the threat poses to regional stakeholders?

Two types of threats that IUU currently poses to regional stakeholders include destructive fishing practices and modern slavery. These threats cannot be separated from the classification of industry in the fishery sector betwen small, medium, and large-scale industries/actors. In Indonesia, for instance, 90% of fishermen consisted of small fishermen who owned boats displacing less than 5 gross tons[13]. The practice of destructive fishing, including cyanide fishing and electro-fishing, is very commonly conducted by small fishermen because their resources to combat increasing operational costs (fuel) are limited. Areas which experience fish depletion force the fishermen to sail farther offshore, increasing costs. Therefore, it is often small fishermen who use destructive fishing to offset these costs and increased operational time.

The number of small-scale fishermen is larger than medium-scale fishers who usually use trawlers. Destructive fishing is usually conducted in shallow water to catch fish that dwell among coral reefs. Therefore, the damage caused has an even larger impact on sea ecosystems by destroying the coral used by fish to breed and nursery. Coral destruction has a major impact on marine food chains.

Higher operational costs and depleting fish stocks also contribute to the second major threat: modern slavery. As depleting stocks make the fishery sector less economically attractive, slavery and labor abuses become another way to reduce costs, and a facilitating condition for IUU fishing. The majority of fishermen in ASEAN are old and need regeneration. Younger generations prefer to work in large fishing vessels because they believe it will give them greater income. Lack of monitoring and high demand in this sector easily lures fishermen to work in foreign vessels without proper protection, supervision, and monitoring from the state. It is important to combat modern slavery by strengthening law enforcement through compliance and deterrence involving the source, flag, coastal, port, trade, and market states. It also requires strengthening international cooperation between states and international organizations.

How has maritime awareness developed to reduce the threat?

ASEAN countries at an elite level have tried to build awareness of the potential threat of IUU Fishing through a number of statements and speeches. Besides that, involvement of the media and NGOs to cover the practice of IUU fishing since 2014 has been massive.  The program of sinking illegal fishing vessels for deterrent effect under the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries of Indonesia since 2014 has raised the issue to national, regional, and international audiences. And since the investigation of the Associated Press into human slavery by Pusaka Benjina Resources in Indonesia, ASEAN countries have been aware of the practice of human trafficking in the fishing sector. Nevertheless, awareness should be built by increasing the knowledge of fishers themselves, as they are the biggest stakeholders in the fishing sector and the most important for reducing the threat both from IUU fishing and its facilitating conditions.

What additional context is necessary to understand the maritime security role of the stakeholder?

Maritime security is a multi-stakeholder issue at the national, regional, and international levels. Therefore, there exists a large potential for conflicts of interest to to develop around an issue which requires a fair and transparent distribution of authority to address. States will need to establish clear guidelines and authorities that issue clear directions regarding investigation, arrest, and security. At the same time, the multitude of smaller individual stakeholders in small-medium scale fishers need to be educated and empowered with training that enables them to avoid IUU practices.

[1] Lee, W. C., & Viswanathan, K. K. (2020). Framework for managing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in ASEAN. World, 10000, 23500.









[10] Read more: Besides that, we can also see from the international legal framework which stipulates binding legal framework including: UNCLOS 1982 (force 1994), FAO Compliance Agreement 1993 (force 2003), UN Fish Stock Agreement (force 2001), and the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA- 2016). While for Non-Binding or voluntary legal framework including FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishery (1995) and International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate IUU Fishing (2001), ILO Maritime Convention (Maritime Labour Convention 2006), and ILO Convention Number 188 – concerning Workers in the Fishery Sector No. 188 (2007).




About Asmiati Malik

Asmiati Malik is an Assistant Professor for International Political Economy at the Universitas Bakrie Indonesia, with a focus on energy and fishery policy governance. She also works as Advisor for the Deputy Chief Staff of Economy of the Executive Office of the President of the Republic of Indonesia.