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Pirate Fishing

In April 2001 the Australian authorities spotted the South Tommy fishing in waters under national jurisdiction close to Antarctica, illegally taking Patagonian toothfish – a very valuable but heavily overfished species. They chased the vessel 4,100 kilometers before arresting it off the Cape of Good Hope. This was a multinational affair – the vessel was registered in Togo and had a European captain, and the Australians eventually boarded it with assistance from the South African navy.

The official term for pirate fishing is IUU fishing: Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated. IUU fishing is a global phenomenon, found in coastal and deep-sea waters. It impoverishes fish stocks and weakens measures taken to protect and restore resources. IUU fishing is unfair competition for those who are operating legally and threatens the survival of coastal populations.

Accurate data about the extent of the problem is hard to collect, given that it is by definition a clandestine activity. According to some reliable estimates, total annual turnover for IUU fishing is somewhere in the region of $10-20 billion and represents a significant proportion of the global catch.

Thousands of fishing boats sailing under flags of convenience or no flag cross the seas every day. Many come from the dismantled fleet of the former Soviet Union. IUU fishing is often an organized crime activity, with the origins of the illegally caught fish so well hidden that they often end up sold in fish markets alongside the legal catch. The European Commission estimates that imports of “pirate” fish into the European Union are worth at least €1.1 billion.

The primary objective of illegal fishing, as with all environmental crimes, is financial gain. In some cases IUU fishing is coordinated on a huge scale through organized networks, involving laundering of money and fish products, corruption, intimidation and aggression towards small-scale fishermen. Practices that violate international law are found at all levels of the production chain: banned fishing methods, transshipment to hide the catch’s origins, the use of flags of convenience or no flag, bribing of officials, false labeling, substitution of species and so on.

In Italy, organized criminals are very active in the fishing sector throughout the south of the country, while fishing boats run by the Indonesian mafia are particularly numerous in Asia.

IUU fishing deprives developing countries of precious food and economic resources. According to Greenpeace, Guinea is losing more than $100 million a year to pirate fishing. This massive business is also proving catastrophic for biodiversity. The waters of deep-sea fisheries, increasingly raided by pirate fishing boats, were until recently almost entirely unexplored. As scientists begin to study this vast area of the planet, they are discovering an environment that is much richer and more vulnerable than coastal zones.

For more information:

Environmental Justice Foundation

Illegal Fishing

High Seas


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