Development Solutions to Address Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing in Latin America and the Caribbean

Summary of the Issue

The rise of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in Latin America and the Caribbean is a major concern with effects extending far beyond the fishing industry. IUU fishing itself has detrimental effects on the livelihoods of licit fishers, coastline ecosystems, and fish stocks. Beyond this, the industry also has ties to food insecurity, human trafficking, forced labor, and drug and weapons smuggling. IUU fishing is a hindrance both to small-scale fishing communities, which are a keystone sector of many regional economies (some 2.3 million people work in fisheries in the region), and regional governments themselves, which have been caught largely flat-footed in their response to the illegal fleets looming on their coastlines.

IUU fishing encompasses a range of illicit activities, including foreign vessels fishing in another country’s territorial waters, violation of international conservation laws or tracking requirements, and failure to report catches to proper authorities. Perpetrators vary widely, ranging from small artisanal boats with just a few crew members to massive distant water fleets (DWF), which are often authorized vessels that underreport their catches. Combating IUU activity has been recognized as a strategic priority by various national, regional, and international authorities including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the U.S Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, and the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism, to name a few. U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) collaborates with the navies and law enforcement of several countries in the Western Hemisphere to combat IUU fishing.

In the spring of 2021, the CSIS Americas Program hosted a series of three off-the-record roundtables with regional experts and stakeholders to discuss the IUU fishing challenges in the Western Hemisphere, specifically focused on the Pacific coast of South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico and Central America. Drawing on the roundtable discussions, expert interviews, and additional research, this commentary examines the biggest challenges posed by IUU fishing and how development agencies can support regional efforts to mitigate the impact of IUU fishing.

Subregional Context

Pacific Coast of South America

IUU fishing along the Pacific coast of South America, specifically in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, is mostly perpetrated by large-scale operations of Chinese DWF, although some small-scale artisanal IUU fishing is present. The issue recently gained notable media attention in December 2020 when hundreds of Chinese ships were caught fishing for squid off the coast of the Galápagos Islands. As the ships moved southward, they were accused of fishing in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Peru and Chile and were eventually deterred by Chile’s navy. China’s influence in Latin America has been an increasingly important topic in the context of its Belt and Road Initiative, to which 19 countries in the region have signed on. China has invested heavily in port infrastructure and has even reportedly donated ships in some cases, moves that are widely seen as a ploy for China to receive favorable exceptions to port inspection measures.

The Galápagos Islands incident is exemplary of a problem that defines IUU fishing in the Pacific coast region: the four countries do not have an effective, cooperative response. While the countries issued a joint statement promising to coordinate efforts against IUU fishing, and all but Colombia are signatories of the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), the level to which they put these ideals into practice continues to vary widely. While part of this issue is attributable to enforcement capacity, a great deal of it is political, specifically regarding the countries’ relationships with China.

However, China is not the only perpetrator of IUU fishing in the region. For example, in its 2019 report to the U.S. Congress, NOAA Fisheries reported that Ecuador failed to investigate reported IUU fishing allegations by its flagged fishing vessels. Sixty percent of Peruvian fishing vessels are unlicensed and unregistered, prompting the Peruvian government to work with fishing cooperatives to develop registration and traceability systems. Colombia has also arrested its own citizens for fishing illegally in its waters, and unauthorized vessels from Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Ecuador have also been discovered.

The Caribbean

IUU fishing in the Caribbean is perpetrated mostly by small-scale fishers from within the region rather than DWF vessels. Fishing is an inextricable part of livelihoods in the Caribbean, as marine resources and related tourism are a fundamental part of their economies. Many Caribbean countries are classified as “fish dependent” and IUU fishing has a large impact on regional food security. For example, as local fishers’ catches have decreased because of overfishing from IUU actors, the Dominican Republic has had to increase imports of fish and seafood to meet domestic consumption demands, and Jamaica has had to limit queen conch allowable catch quotas to make up for overfishing by IUU actors. The combination of a fisheries industry built on small-scale operations, a vast expanse of ocean that is difficult to monitor, and general governance and corruption issues in the Caribbean means that IUU fishing is rampant.

Several countries in the Caribbean have created regional bodies and policies to confront IUU fishing collectively. The Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM), an institution of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), is a forum that promotes and creates sustainable fisheries policies, such as the Castries Declaration and the Caribbean Community Common Fisheries Policy, and allows countries to hold each other accountable. Furthermore, many countries in the region are members of the Western Central Atlantic Fishery Commission, an FAO body that similarly coordinates effective fisheries governance for specific highly migratory species (HMS). However, regional coordination is only one part of the solution; enforcement and interdiction are key elements to combating IUU fishing in the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, adherence to these bodies and sustainable practices more broadly have been hindered for various reasons. Primarily, there is simply a lack of naval capacity for many countries in the Caribbean to police their own waters and sometimes a lack of maritime domain awareness. Even where the enforcement capacity exists, governments may feel it is not politically expedient to enforce measures due to corruption or special interests from the fishing industry. Finally, cooperation is hindered simply by the tension between countries aggravated with their neighbors’ fleets fishing illegally in their waters.

Mexico and Central America

Like in the Pacific coast of South America, DWF overfishing along Mexico’s massive Pacific coastline is commonplace, and small-scale Mexican artisanal fleets also regularly fish illegally in the Gulf of Mexico along the United States’ shoreline, a fact that was flagged in NOAA Fisheries’ report to the U.S. Congress in 2019. Notably, U.S. officials recently executed a high-profile bust of a scheme to traffic totoaba; totoaba fishing has also led to the near-extinction of the vaquita porpoise, which is frequently caught in totoaba nets. In Central America, the main perpetrators of IUU fishing are typically small fleets from neighboring countries, which is difficult for most countries to combat given their minimal naval deterrence capacity.

The only regional body for coordinating fisheries policy is the Central America Fisheries and Aquaculture Association (OSPESCA), a body similar to the CRFM that operates under the Sistema de Integración Centroamericano, which includes the countries of the isthmus but not Mexico. This region also has especially close trading ties with the United States: between the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, (USMCA), Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), and the U.S.-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement, every country in the region except Belize has a trade agreement with the United States.

Free trade agreements with Mexico and Central America can and should be used as a tool to increase accountability for regional governments to prosecute IUU fishing in their waters. This concept has already been embedded in the USMCA, with provisions to ban subsidies for ships caught participating in IUU fishing and increased seafood customs enforcement. Similar chapters could be implemented under CAFTA-DR and the U.S-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement, leading to more direct confrontation against IUU actors in the region.

Other Significant Challenges

Connection to Drugs, Forced Labor, and Trafficking

The lack of enforcement and opaque supply chains characteristic of IUU fishing make the practice a perfect breeding ground for bad actors, including transnational criminal organizations and smugglers. This issue is most common in the Caribbean, where enforcement capacity is arguably lowest, but is a shared concern throughout the region. The smuggling of weapons, drugs, humans, and animals within the fishing industry has been extensively documented by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The cooperation between fishing vessels and smugglers is often incidental but can be highly organized as in the case of weapons or migrant smuggling.

Workers on IUU fishing vessels are often subject to inhumane working conditions including 18-hour work days and little pay, if any at all. Fishers on IUU vessels are often trafficked and subject to physical and sexual abuse, and many are children. The proliferation of these unethical conditions places a downward pressure on the wages and labor standards in the licit fishing industry, which must cut costs to compete with IUU fishers.

Livelihood Impacts

IUU fishing can destroy the livelihoods of small-scale, licit fishers and coastal communities more generally. IUU fishing not only has the effect of diminishing wild stocks through unsustainable catching practices, but it can also irreversibly damage coastal ecosystems by removing endemic species or damaging reefs. As a result, both fishers and other community members who rely on the sea for ecotourism, transportation, and other blue economic sectors are economically devastated with nothing to fall back on. Latin American and Caribbean populations are increasingly relying on fish and seafood as a source of protein; the FAO projects a 33 percent increase in consumption of fish and seafood by 2030.

The root of IUU fishing’s devastating effects on livelihoods is not an easy fix. IUU fishing is so profitable compared to licit fishing that it is almost impossible to compete with IUU-caught fish on the market. Many lifelong licit fishermen, especially small-scale artisanal fishers, are likely to seek opportunities in IUU fishing, creating a cycle of IUU fishing proliferation and livelihood devastation.

Recommendations for USAID and Other Development Agencies

Policy Harmonization

The priority of a truly coordinated regional response must be harmonization of policies both between countries and across agencies. There is significant political commitment from many countries in the region to combat IUU fishing; however, many countries have struggled to implement effective anti-IUU fishing policies and infrastructure. Disparate policies, legal frameworks, and language barriers create loopholes for IUU fishers to take advantage of, and actors like policymakers, judges, and customs officials are often not coordinated in their response to IUU fishing across the region. To effectively combat IUU fishing, the countries of the region will need to collaborate on issues like port entry and setting standards for EEZ access. The sharing of standards and information across borders and compliance with these standards are foundational to the region’s IUU fishing response.

Countries throughout the region have different cultural perspectives regarding sustainability and acceptable labor practices in the fisheries sector, which can make policy harmonization difficult without a third party’s coordination. Furthermore, each subregion within Latin America faces distinct challenges that make a coordinated effort even more difficult.

Development actors such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) should:

  • Act as a convening partner to support building a culture of accountability between countries and to promote common standards across the region. For example, USAID can host joint trainings with countries in the region to allow countries to share their expertise with others, create a common standard and common vocabulary, and create teams across governments.

  • Build and expand upon existent initiatives like the Seafood Alliance for Legality and Traceability (SALT), which brings together nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), regional governments, and the seafood industry. While SALT largely focuses on the tracing and tracking of seafood, its fundamental focus is to connect traceability efforts around the world and to facilitate information sharing. Development agencies can look to initiatives like SALT when designing information sharing and cooperation programs between countries in the region.

  • Support the inclusion of the topic of IUU fishing on the agendas of regional meetings like the Summit of the Americas and use these meetings as opportunities to coordinate with partners in the region.

  • Support the inclusion of the topic of IUU fishing on the ministerial and cabinet-level agendas of bilateral relationships between the United States and key partners in the region like Mexico and Colombia to coordinate at a high level.

Combating Corruption and Promoting Transparency

Weak governance and endemic corruption have been a hindrance to efforts to combat IUU fishing for decades. Many governments turn a blind eye to IUU fishing in their waters to appease either domestic political interests or powerful global actors, especially China. Hefty investment packages and direct donations are leveraged for exceptions to port measures and impunity for IUU vessels.

Development actors such as USAID should:

  • Build upon the transparency and good governance programs they have already initiated or that are under design phase by introducing an essential IUU dimension.

  • Include accountability for IUU actors as a keystone priority for governance initiatives in the region, along with reducing corruption and increasing interagency cooperation.

  • Add an IUU fishing component to existing rule of law initiatives in the region.

Strengthening Livelihoods

Arguably the initiative that would have the most direct effect on citizens is restoring and strengthening livelihoods for licit fishing. As discussed, this is not achievable so long as there is a major profit incentive for IUU fishing, which means it will require all the above initiatives to be implemented as well. In addition to livelihood programming already implemented by USAID and other development actors, these actors can also play a significant role in educating the public about the perils of IUU fishing and promoting environmentally sustainable and legal fishing.

Development actors such as USAID should:

  • Foster an informed public discourse on the dangers of IUU fishing and limiting/eliminating the import of fish and seafood caught by IUU actors. This could include public education initiatives on the sources of fish and seafood and promoting responsible consumption.

  • Introduce a public educational dimension to programs that already exist, such as the Strengthening Natural Resource Governance in Ecuador (SNRGE) program that aims to conserve Ecuador’s biodiversity.

Port Inspection and Capacity Building

Another important initiative should be technical assistance, both for port inspection measures as well as at-sea enforcement. Most governments in the region want to deal with IUU perpetrators but simply lack the capacity to do so.

Development actors such as USAID should:

  • Support countries in developing the capacity to enforce and implement already-existent agreements like the PSMA.

    • Specific measures should include trainings for port inspectors and customs officials, the transparent construction of port infrastructure with better weighing and tracking capabilities, and naval funding to promote policing and deterrence.
  • The FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Capacity Building Programme provides a solid foundation for partnership with USAID. While the program focuses largely on DWF vessels, it should be expanded to engage with small-scale fleets, which are the main perpetrators of IUU in much of Latin America.

Combating IUU fishing in the region requires sustained and long-term regional and interagency cooperation and solutions between the countries of the region, and development actors will play a key role in leading and convening intraregional partnerships.

Margarita R. Seminario is deputy director and senior fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Linnea Sandin is a former associate director and associate fellow with the CSIS Americas Program. Isaac Parham is a program coordinator with the CSIS Americas Program.

This commentary is made possible through the generous support of the U.S. Agency for International Development through Environmental Incentives. It does not reflect the views of the United States government or USAID.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Margarita R. Seminario

Margarita R. Seminario

Former Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Americas Program

Linnea Sandin

Former Associate Director and Associate Fellow, Americas Program

Isaac Parham