A new set of values: Can technology help tackle illegal fishing?

Labour exploitation, overfishing and climate change all pose significant threats to the seafood sector, which is a major source of income for many. Is technology the answer?

Fishermen unloading buckets of fish from their boats in Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia
Fishermen unloading buckets of fish from their boats in Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Fishing is a major source of livelihood in Southeast Asia. Image: Asian Development Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Aquaculture, or large scale ‘fish farms’, is now the fastest-growing source of protein in the world, and has overtaken wildcatch fisheries as the main source of seafood. If done right, seafood can be less carbon and water intensive than alternative sources of land-based protein. Much of the growth in seafood in recent years has been driven by Asia, both in consumer demand as well as export production. Getting the seafood sector to work is vital for both economic growth as well as the planet. However, many serious challenges still exist.

Industrial-scale illegal fishing continues to plague the sector, taking livelihoods away from many lower income coastal communities and impacting government revenues around the world.  Much of the illegal fishing has operated in the shadows and is associated with human rights and labour abuses, corruption and a range of other illicit activities.

The impact of illegal fishing

In many countries around the world, the seafood sector is growing at twice the rate of GDP growth.  It is a significant employer and contributor to government revenues. Southeast Asia is particularly well suited to capture this growth given its rich tropical waters and vibrant coral reefs.

However globally, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing represents a theft of around 26 million tonnes, or close to $24 billion value of seafood a year.  This is seafood that could have been caught in the waters of other countries, caught using illegal and ecologically damaging techniques, or under declared due to transhipment at sea.

In certain cases, such as tuna, stocks have declined over 90 per cent, and some species could soon be classed as ‘at risk’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The decline of such stocks impacts economic development, jobs, livelihoods of coastal communities that are already under stress, as well as having serious environmental consequences. Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing has exacerbated the situation, taking more fish out of our seas than scientists recommend.

In addition, the seafood sector is particularly challenging sector for the 100 million who work across the seafood value chain. Poor labour conditions and human rights abuses, both on fishing vessels and in processing plants, are notorious and well documented.  As vessels travel in and out of national jurisdictions, monitoring such poor and hazardous labour conditions require new approaches.

Climate change is adding a further complication, with warmer and more acidic water impacting the health and growth of fish, the water currents that fish travel along and the entire marine biological pyramid. As a result, the behaviour of fish is altering with some stocks travelling away from tropical waters toward the poles at a rate of 40 miles every 10 years.

Fourth Industrial Revolution solutions to IUU fishing 

New technologies around traceability in the seafood supply chain could offer powerful new techniques to address illegal fishing and ensure growth can be sustainable. 

Historically, technology has been double-edged in the seafood sector.  Since the 1950s, more advanced technology has allowed nations to become more extractive of our oceans and develop industrialised fleets and processing plants. 

For example, fishing vessels have become larger, more complex and allowed us to fish deeper, further and for longer than at any point in history; the invention of nylon has allowed larger nets, with some as large as 50 miles long; satellite tracking is used to more precisely identify the location of fish stocks; technologically advanced autonomous Fish Aggregating Devices are used to attract juvenile fish who haven’t reached full maturity.

A new set of values are needed with the new technologies that are being unleashed with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, to prevent a continuation of unfettered extraction. Technologies such as lower cost satellite tracking, unmanned drones that can fly for months on end, unmanned vessels, lower cost sensors, Big Data, blockchain, can help automate and remotely monitor fisheries, making it easier to regulate against illegal fishing activities.

A new set of values are needed with the new technologies that are being unleashed with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, to prevent a continuation of unfettered extraction.

Sustainable innovation will require industry to take greater responsibility along the supply chain. By requiring that all seafood is fully traceable to the vessel or aquaculture farm, retailers and harvesters can ensure all seafood entering the supply chain is safe and legally sourced. This requires strong public-private collaboration.

In early June, the United Nations will be hosting the first of several global ocean conferences to focus on the UN Sustainable Development Goal on Oceans. This will involve a big focus is on ending illegal fishing by 2020, in line with the SDG target. The World Economic Forum’s New Vision for the Ocean project is seeking to convene private and public sector pledges to ensure full seafood traceability by this date, starting with some of our most critical fish stocks.

The technology exists today for full end-to-end traceability.  It is just the will that remains to be seen.

Nishan Degnarain is Special Advisor on Oceans for the World Economic Forum. 

Like this content? Join our growing community.

Your support helps to strengthen independent journalism, which is critically needed to guide business and policy development for positive impact. Unlock unlimited access to our content and members-only perks.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →