It’s complicated: Understanding non-compliance in small-scale fisheries

By Peter Aronson, SRC Intern

Following regulations can be vital for conservation, yet the world’s realities place pressure onto people, which can incentivize non-compliance. This undermines conservation work and the positive ecological outcomes achieved by it. In the ocean specifically, short bursts of illegal fishing can negate the effects of decades of protection, especially for species whose populations take a long time to recover, like many sharks (Russ and Alcala, 2010). As shark populations have declined globally, conservationists have advocated for shark sanctuaries to be established to protect sharks from exploitation (Dulvy et al., 2014; Ward-Page and Worm, 2017). By understanding the motivations and traits of those not following regulations, strategies can be developed to increase compliance (Keane et al., 2008). Nearly all fishers in the world live in lower-income countries and are engaged in small-scale fisheries, but research on the behavioral drivers of illegal fishing has traditionally focused on recreational fishers in wealthier countries (Bova et al., 2017; World Bank et al., 2012). A group of scientists set out to Myanmar to study fishers’ awareness of, compliance with, and perceptions towards shark fishing regulations.

Figure 1) Populations of some shark species, such as whale sharks, have been in decline globally due to overexploitation. (Victor Researcher (2008). 21 Ton Whale Shark. WikiCommons.)

Myanmar prohibits the capture and sale of whale sharks and has two shark reserves in which shark fishing is not permitted; however, many fishers are unaware of these regulations. The Department of Fisheries also lacks the ability to enforce them. There is additionally ambiguity as the law was declared informally, and it doesn’t address instances of bycatch. Scientists studied five coastal communities they had well-established relationships with where prohibited shark fishing was known to occur. They conducted surveys with fishers, in which fishers could voluntarily answer whether, where, and when they had caught sharks and witnessed others catching sharks. Scientists found 40% of respondents had accidentally or intentionally caught an estimated 4821 sharks in the year prior to the survey (MacKeracher et al., 2020). Of the 58 respondents, 35 reported having caught sharks themselves (MacKeracher et al., 2020). Overall, 49% of respondents were aware of shark fishing rules, with levels of awareness varying among communities (MacKeracher et al., 2020). Shark fishers tended to be younger and not to own their own boat. Most sharks being caught fell within three families: bamboo and epaulette sharks (Hemiscylliidae), requiem sharks (Carcharhinidiae), and hammerhead sharks (Sphyrnidae) (MacKeracher et al., 2020). Nearly 80% of fishers came from the large coastal city of Myeik and sold their catch there and other large coastal cities, while the remainder of fishers from the local communities sold their catch locally (MacKeracher at al., 2020). Fishers who reported catching sharks themselves most commonly said they did so for money, and also mentioned food (MacKeracher et al., 2020).

Figure 2) Boats in the Myeik Archipelago, Myanmar. (Go Myanmar. (2013). The Myeik Archipelago, Myanmar (Burma)[Photograph]. WikiCommons.)

Understanding the levels and potential drivers of illegal shark fishing puts the issue into context and allows resource managers to strategically and effectively plan how to improve compliance. In areas where poverty rates are high and options for alternative sources of income are low, there is a high incentive to fish illegally. Further, communities with limited interactions with fisheries officials are less likely to be aware of regulations, which can contribute to non-compliance. In resource-dependent communities with few options as sources of income, shark conservation efforts can benefit from strategies to reduce fishing pressure by providing incentives for alternate sustainable livelihoods. Further, as most shark fishers are young men, these can be incentives targeted for that demographic. While educational campaigns can improve awareness and compliance, long-term compliance must be achieved by addressing broader issues such as poverty and food security.


Works Cited

Bova, C.S., S.J. Halse, S. Aswani, and W.M. Potts. 2017. Assessing a social norms approach for improving recreational fisheries compliance. Fisheries Management and Ecology 24: 117–125.

Dulvy, N.K., S.L. Fowler, J.A. Musick, R.D. Cavanagh, P.M. Kyne, L.R. Harrison, J.K. Carlson, L.N. Davidson, et al. 2014. Extinction risk and conservation of the world’s sharks and rays. eLife 3: e00590.

Keane, A., J.P. Jones, G. Edwards-Jones, and E.J. Milner-Gulland.2008. The sleeping policeman: Understanding issues of enforcement and compliance in conservation. Animal Conservation 11:75–82.

MacKeracher, T., Bergseth, B., Maung, K. M. C., Khine, Z. L., Phyu, E. T., Simpfendorfer, C. A., & Diedrich, A. (2020). Understanding non-compliance in small-scale fisheries: Shark fishing in Myanmar’s Myeik Archipelago. Ambio, 1-14.

Russ, G.R., and A.C. Alcala. 2010. Decadal-scale rebuilding of predator biomass in Philippine marine reserves. Oecologia 163: 1103–1106.

Ward-Paige, C.A., and B. Worm. 2017. Global evaluation of shark sanctuaries. Global Environmental Change 47: 174–189.

World Bank, Food Agriculture Organization, and WorldFish. 2012. Hidden harvests: The global contribution of capture fisheries, economic and sector work. Report No. 66469-GLB. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Crime on the High Seas: How Organized Crime Could Hinder a Sustainable Ocean Economy

By John Proefrock, SRC Intern

When you think of organized crime your mind probably drifts towards the mafia and cartel or the dramatized versions of these organizations that show up in TV shows and movies. So, it may come as a shock to some that there is a direct threat from organized crime to the future of a sustainable ocean economy. Organized crime in the fisheries industry isn’t a new issue, even Al Capone utilized the commercial fishing industry to smuggle rum during prohibition (Ensign, 2001), but there is a lack of awareness on the international stage to the danger that crime organizations can have on maritime industries. The goal of Witbooi et. al. (2020) is to provide the current state of knowledge on organized crime in the fisheries sector so that the information can be distributed and acted on by nations which have a vested interest in the growth of a safe and sustainable ocean economy. 

Organized crime on the sea is not as lighthearted as The Pirates of the Caribbean would have you believe. These organizations indiscriminately use illegal fishing practices to obtain copious amounts of sea life. The illegal catch is then sold on the market to unsuspecting consumers using fraudulent documentation, often undercutting the ethically sourced seafood and perpetuating the cycle of harmful practices. One example of such an operation is the case of The Viking, a ship that was detained in Indonesian waters by the Indonesian Navy. This ship was illegally catching and selling Patagonian Toothfish, Dissostichus eleginoides. The operators of the ship were utilizing illegal gillnets, the most discarded fishing equipment in the commercial sector, meaning that many end up entangling whales and other large sea fauna (Shester et. al, 2011). Use of nets over 2.5km long is punishable by 5 years in jail and a fine up to $150,000 US dollars. These fishermen also reported to a organizer who profited from the illegal sale.

A Patagonian Toothfish: Dissostichus eleginoides Source:

Aside from fisheries violations, organized crime on the ocean also encompasses fraud, money laundering, smuggling/drug trafficking, corruption and forced labor. The challenge associated with dealing with this wide variety of issues boils down to a couple main points. The first is a lack of national prioritization due to a lack of information and the difficulty associated with investigating claims of illegal activity. There is also the issue of unclear jurisdiction, or who can actually act on crime that has been observed and a lack of capacity and skillset of law enforcement to deal with organized crime on the high seas. 

A pelagic thresher shark, Alopias pelagicus, killed after getting caught in a gill net.

Positive developments in this field would include the strengthening of international cooperation to create a wide-sweeping net of jurisdiction so that no illegal operation flies under the radar, with a constant exchange of information and intelligence. Training the law enforcement agencies to deal with this specific breed of crime would also prove beneficial to the future of sustainable fisheries. These steps can ensure the future of our oceans and a sustainable maritime economy.


Work Cited:

Ensign, Eric S. Intelligence in the Rum War at Sea, 1920-1933. Joint Military Intelligence Coll Washington Dc, 2001. 

Shester, Geoffrey G., and Fiorenza Micheli. “Conservation Challenges for Small-Scale Fisheries: Bycatch and Habitat Impacts of Traps and Gillnets.” Biological Conservation, vol. 144, no. 5, 2011, pp. 1673–1681., doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2011.02.023. 

Witbooi, Emma, et al. “Organized Crime in the Fisheries Sector Threatens a Sustainable Ocean Economy.” Nature, vol. 588, no. 7836, 2020, pp. 48–56., doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2913-5.

Five Ways to Fight Illegal Fishing

By Lindsay Jennings, RJD Intern

 The issue of illegal fishing has, deservedly, been getting international attention recently but it should be noted that this ‘great ocean heist’ is not a new phenomenon. For far too long fishing boats have been misreporting or underreporting their catches. There simply are not enough fish for these boats to catch so they resort to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. IUU fishing accounts for $10-$23 billion annually in internationally traded seafood,[1] and to compound the problem, it has been linked to environmental degradation, political instability, slave labor, and the movement of other illicit cargo like drugs and weapons. While there is not one single solution, there can be a complimenting set of actions taken at international, national, and local levels to address this threat, of which the top five are presented below:

  1. Legislation – It is crucial to develop the framework for addressing IUU fishing on a global scale, as this kind of fishing is rarely confined by species or geographic boundaries. Legislation like the Port States Measures Agreement (PSMA) gives countries the opportunity to reduce profitability of IUU fishing by denying port access and services to IUU vessels, better controlling what seafood is coming into their ports.[2] Combined international efforts to pass and implement this global treaty would allow some of the world’s largest and most lucrative ports to not only penalize those who illegally fish but close the market for vessels trying to offload their catch.
  1. Global Vessel Identification – Although the right to fish on the high seas is given to all countries, some are unwilling or unable to enforce their regulations, providing illegal fishermen with ‘flags of convenience.’ When IUU vessels are compromised, crews will often re-flag, or re-register, their vessels to a different port state, evading law enforcement and circumventing international fishing regulations.[3] Similar to a car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) or our Social Security Numbers, Unique Vessel Identifiers (UVI) can be used to ‘tag’ a fishing vessel with a non-transferable, unique number which stays with that vessel until it is permanently taken out of the water. By eliminating the ability for vessels to hide behind a new identity, punishments for illegal fishing activities would dramatically increase.3
Pic 1 - IMO Vessel Number

Unique and permanent vessel identification numbers can help cut down IUU vessels from re-flagging themselves. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  1. Seafood Traceability – The United States is the second largest importer of seafood,[4] a commodity which earns more in annual trading than coffee, cocoa, bananas, and rubber combined. With the majority of seafood caught out of sight of authorities, it is essential to ensure that what is being caught and sold is done so legally. Traceability programs would require imports to be accompanied with documentation describing vessel, date, location, gear, species, and common name, to ensure traceability from bait to plate.[5] Seafood retailers have the ability to influence consumer behaviors and demand for legal seafood. They can shift the risk to reward ratio of IUU fishing by eliminating market access for illegal seafood, stopping it from ‘paying off.’[6]
  1. Monitoring, Surveillance, and Compliance (MSC) – While legislation and regulations offer a sound framework, they become ineffective if vessels are not complying with those regulations.[7] Enforcement is often lacking or nonexistent on the high seas, therefore MSC systems must be implemented to ensure adequate monitoring and surveillance. The simple use of technology like vessel monitoring systems (VMS) and automatic identification systems (AIS) would guarantee vessels are fishing within legal limits. Beyond VMS and AIS, satellite monitoring and even remote operated drones have proven to be effective,6 allowing authorities to watch fishing effort from 1000’s of miles away and adding a much-needed layer of accountability.

Portuguese Navy and Gabonese sailors work together to inspect a holding bay for fish aboard an IUU fishing vessel. Credit: U.S. Navy

  1. Development – IUU fishing often stems from developing country’s underlying social, economic, and political issues, meaning they have greater difficulties achieving enforcement and compliance.7 With the primary motivation for IUU fishing being financial gain, coupled with poor economic prospects, incentive will remain to engage in this kind of fishing until alternative jobs pay a higher wage.3,7 Governments and non-governmental organizations should cooperate to develop alternative sources of employment to disincentivize IUU fishing without sacrificing the ability of those fishers to support themselves.
Pic 3 - Coast Guard Cutter

The Coast Guard Cutter, Rush, escorts a high seas illegal fishing vessel back to port. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

IUU fishing is one of the most serious threats facing the achievement of sustainable global fisheries and food security. Fortunately, the tools to fight IUU fishing already exist. The responsibility doesn’t lie with one country, but with a strong and coordinated effort of international and national players who can effectively deter fishers from engaging in and benefitting from IUU fishing.


[1] Agnew, David J., John Pearce, Ganapathiraju Pramod, Tom Peatman, Reg Watson, John R. Beddington, and Tony J. Pitcher. “Estimating the worldwide extent of illegal fishing.” PLoS One 4, no. 2 (2009): e4570.

[2] Flothmann, Stefan, Kristín von Kistowski, Emily Dolan, Elsa Lee, Frank Meere, and Gunnar Album. “Closing loopholes: getting illegal fishing under control.” Science 328, no. 5983 (2010): 1235-1236.

[3] Gallic, Bertrand Le, and Anthony Cox. “An economic analysis of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing: Key drivers and possible solutions.” Marine Policy 30, no. 6 (2006): 689-695.

[4] NOAA. 2012. Fisheries of the United States 2011. National Marine Fisheries Service and the Office of Science and Technology. Available via:

[5] Borit, Melania, and Petter Olsen. “Evaluation framework for regulatory requirements related to data recording and traceability designed to prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.” Marine Policy 36, no. 1 (2012): 96-102.

[6] Global Ocean Commission. “Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.” (2013). Available via:

[7] Erceg, Diane. “Deterring IUU fishing through state control over nationals.” Marine Policy 30, no. 2 (2006): 173-179.