Putting a Price Tag on Illegal Tuna Fishing in the Pacific

Created on Tuesday, 21 June 2016

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:Department of Commerice

Photo Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce

An important two-year study coordinated by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) “Towards the Quantification of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing in the Pacific Islands Region” has shone a spotlight on the prevalence of IUU fishing activity in the region that’s home to the most productive tuna stock on the planet. By identifying the volume and composition of illegal catch, and the nature of vessels primarily responsible for the violations, the authors were able to identify priorities for monitoring and enforcement.

This report is the first effort to quantify the volume, species, composition, and value of IUU fishing specifically within Pacific tuna fisheries, in part due to the difficulties in collecting robust information. In order to create an estimate of IUU fishing, risk factors were separated into four main categories: unlicensed/unauthorized fishing, misreporting (including under-reporting and misidentification), non-compliance with other license conditions (e.g. FAD fishing during the purse seine closure period), and post-harvest risks (e.g. illegal transshipping). Then data from 2010 – 2015 on these risks was evaluated for each of the region’s three main tuna fishing sectors – purse seine, tropical longline, and southern longline – and aggregated to produce a total estimate. The data was obtained from vessel logbooks, observer workbooks, public domain catch and effort data, and vessel monitoring systems. The study generated best estimates as well as minimum and maximum range values, to reflect some uncertainty resulting from the inherent secretive nature of IUU fishing.

The following is a brief list of the study’s key findings:

  • Total volume of product harvested or transshipped using IUU activity in Pacific tuna fisheries was estimated at 306,440 tons, valued at $616.11 million a year.
  • Purse seine was the sector with the highest estimated volume of IUU product, accounting for 70% of overall volume. The prominent IUU activities in this sector were reporting violations and illegal FAD fishing during the closure period.
  • Tropical longline was the sector with the highest estimated value of IUU product, accounting for $272.55 million. This is largely due to the higher market value of the sector’s target species.
  • Reporting violations ranked as the highest IUU risk category, accounting for 54% of the total estimated IUU volume.
  • Majority of IUU activity is conducted by licensed fleets, accounting for 95% of the total estimated volume and value of IUU product.


The study estimates $616.11 million dollars of IUU product is stolen from the Pacific island waters each year – equating to roughly 12 percent of the regional catch. This is a significant loss to the 17 nations in this region that rely on the tuna fisheries as a large source of revenue and livelihoods. Many efforts are already underway to help combat IUU in Pacific tuna fisheries, however the results of this study reveal that more strategic measures are needed to effectively encourage compliance and improve monitoring throughout the supply chain. For instance, the study found that unlike other regions of the world where large unlicensed fishing fleets contribute to the majority of IUU activity, the largest threat to these fisheries is misreporting by legally licensed vessels. Further, these results can provide important data for driving future IUU mitigation management efforts in that region, serving as a baseline against which future improvements and successes in the region can be measured.

In the longline sector, key priorities include strengthening mechanisms for independent monitoring of catch throughout the supply chain, increasing transshipment monitoring and control, and improving on-board monitoring through increased observer coverage and the use of electronic monitoring technology. The key priorities identified for the purse seine sector are strengthening mechanisms to verify fishing activity, using cannery data for catch verification, and improving monitoring and management of FAD usage.

Some companies are aware of the risks associated with current tuna sourcing practices and are taking steps to provide more sustainable options for their customers. These include FishWise’s retail partners who carry sustainably sourced private brands of canned tuna such as Albertson’s Safeway Kitchens, Target’s Simply Balanced, and Hy-Vee’s Select. To learn more about popular brands of canned tuna on supermarket shelves and which ones are leaders in sustainable and ethical tuna sourcing, read Greenpeace’s Tuna Shopping Guide.