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Pirate Fish on European Plates? No Thanks!

“Do you have authorisation to tranship [transfer cargo from one ship to another] in the location you are transhipping?” asked an environmental campaigner via a satellite phone in the waters of Sierra Leone.

The captain of the Canarian Reefer hung up immediately. His Panama-flagged refrigerator vessel was suspected of carrying fish from pirate vessels to fully-certified ones, thus making illegally caught fish technically legal.

Pirate fishing severely undermines marine ecosystems.

Sierra Leoneans watch a pirate fishing vessel.

The livelihoods of local artisanal fishers is threatened.

Pirate fishing – officially known as IUU (Illegal, Unreported & Unregulated) fishing – is a global phenomenon which severely impacts the world’s fisheries. IUU fishing is fishing activity that contravenes national and international laws (e.g. using banned fishing gear), targets endangered species, and operates in protected areas and/or without a permit or licence to fish.

The consequences to the sensitive marine environment are often devastating: destroyed seabeds take decades to recover, while tonnes of non-target marine species accidentally caught in the nets are simply discarded into the sea, dead or dying. Artisanal fishers are also suffering: pirate vessels can destroy their fishing gears and deplete local fish stocks. Fish being a vital source of protein to many coastal communities, pirate fishing threatens their food security, jobs and livelihoods.

Although pirate fishing is not restricted to West Africa, its waters are estimated to have the highest levels of pirate fishing in the world; the UN Food and Agriculture Organization calculates that 70% of global fish stocks are already fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted.

One of the main drivers for pirate fishing in West Africa is Europe’s increasing demand for fish and other seafood.

The UK-based NGO Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) recently released “Pirate Fishing Exposed”, a report that documents how pirate fish enters European and Asian markets. Taking advantage of weak port controls and a lack of proper monitoring systems, pirate vessels unload their catch in Europe, which means that Europeans might well be eating pirate fish without knowing it.

One of the factors that allows this is happen is the extensive use of Flags of Convenience (FoC), whereas a ship flies the flag of a country other than the country of ownership in order to escape strict regulations, registration fees, taxes and labour rights. The International Transport Workers’ Federation lists 34 FoC countries; among them – EU member states Malta and Cyprus; others, like Bolivia and Mongolia, have extensive fleets despite being completely landlocked. EJF’s report indicates that global losses due to IUU fishing are estimated to be between $10-23.5bn annually.


As the world’s largest importer of fish, the EU carries a responsibility to ensure no pirate fish ever ends up on European plates.

Fish is the main protein source for coastal communities.

Human rights abuses on board pirate vessels are not uncommon.

Campaigners call on the EU to blacklist pirate vessels.

The EU Regulation to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (No. 1005/2008) requires all fish that enters the EU market to be accompanied by a catch certificate, and relies on Flag States to provide assurance that fishing vessels operate in compliance with national and international rules. These assurances are not always reliable, says Andy Hickman, one of the EJF report’s authors. “They need to be backed up by strong vessel monitoring systems – something  that national authorities often don’t have the capacity or even willingness to enforce.”

In mid-November, the European Commission issued a warning to eight states – Belize, Cambodia, Fiji, Guinea, Panama, Sri Lanka, Togo, and Vanuatu – that they risk being identified as countries the Commission “considers non-cooperative in the fight against IUU fishing”. This means that currently the EU will not take any measures against these countries, giving them time to implement vessel monitoring and control improvements. If these requirements are not met, the EU could take further steps, possibly trade restrictions.

Maria Damanaki, European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, said the warning was “not a blacklist, but a yellow card”. “We want to see an EU blacklist,” EJF’s Hickman said. “The EU IUU Regulation came into force almost three years ago, but not a single vessel or country has had their illegal seafood exports to the EU restricted.”

Apart from the much-needed control on the part of the authorities, it is also important to hit pirate fishing bosses where it hurts most – their pockets. The Slow Food Movement’s “Slow Fish” campaign encourages consumers to be well-informed about sustainability certification and always vigilant when buying fish.

All fish on our plates, Slow Food Movement believes, has to be Good, Clean and Fair. Pirate fish does not fit into that category.

Images and video: Courtesy of Environmental Justice Foundation.

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About The Author(s)



Giedre Steikunaite

Giedre Steikunaite

Freelance Writer / Journalist

A freelance writer and journalist currently based in London, UK. The issues I explore are human rights // environment // culture, and the people who are making a change towards a possible future for all of us.

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