Saving Southeast Asia from illegal fishing

Southeast Asia’s oceans are a key source of food and employment for millions of people in the region.

The fishing trade plays an important role in Southeast Asia’s economy and food security.  However, illegal fishing is an increasingly serious cross-border issue as it threatens regional stability, livelihoods and the marine ecosystems.  In response, the various authorities have stepped up cooperation and enforcement efforts.  

By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade

Southeast Asia’s oceans are a key source of food and employment for millions of people in the region, but fish stocks are being depleted by illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.  Across the region, 64 percent of the fisheries is at medium to high risk from overfishing.

IUU fishing is on the rise primarily because it is a lucrative low-risk high-return crime.  For example, one kg of Totoaba fish bladder is worth more than one kg of cocaine on illegal Asian markets, fetching up to US$50,000 per bladder; a six-week illegal fishing trip to Antarctica can make up to US$7.2 million in profit.

The inherent nature of IUU fishing makes it difficult to accurately quantify the full economic impact, but it is believed to be costing billions of dollars to the affected countries.  Fisheries crime is now complex and interconnected, and although they may occur at sea, have large onshore impacts.

In a sign that IUU fishing is evolving to keep up with the times, unlike a decade ago, it is now not just fishing vessel captains and owners who are responsible for present-day fisheries crime.  

Other malignant actors perpetrating the crime include business executives, public officials, lawyers, accountants and other white-collar professionals as money laundering, corruption and forgery are committed too, according to INTERPOL.

These executive criminals create shell companies in offshore financial havens and conspire with accountants to launder money, nurture corrupt relationships with government officials, falsify regulatory documents, and consistently resort to forced labor on the fishing ships.

IUU fishing is also linked to other serious crimes like arms, drug and human trafficking as well as terrorism, involving organized, transnational criminal groups which are undermining not only economic, but also social and political stability of the coastal nations.

These criminals use fishing vessels to traffic arms, drugs and people because the nomadic navigation patterns and long periods at sea make it easy for them to blend into the seascape without suspicion.  They also use the ill-gotten proceeds to finance other illegal activities such as terrorism.

Indonesia captures notorious outlaw fishing ship

For the past 10 years, since 2010 when it established a dedicated Environmental Security Program (ENS), INTERPOL has been pushing investigations beyond invisible ocean borders to disrupt criminal networks behind fisheries crime.

In one of the landmark cases, acting on a request from INTERPOL in 2018, Indonesia seized one of the world’s most wanted pirate fishing vessel after it evaded capture in many countries.  This case highlights the challenges of tackling fisheries crime across various jurisdictions and the unique role of INTERPOL in providing a coordinated international response.

This nefarious ship, known as “ANDREY DOLGOV”, “STS-50”, and “SEA BREEZ 1” among others, had operated across three oceans with impunity for 10 years.  During this period, it is believed the criminals had pilfered a total of US$50 million worth of fish from the ocean.

The vessel was a master of deception. In order to avoid detection and confuse pursuers, it changed name six times, flew the flag of as many nations and disguised its electronic identification systems.  Ever ready to make use of legal loopholes, the ship retreated to the relative safety of international waters whenever the risk of capture was high. 

Long arms of the law

The law finally caught up when a a tip-off was received from New Zealand and INTERPOL issued a Purple Notice against the vessel for IUU fishing. Purple Notices are an important tool for fisheries enforcement as they allow police worldwide to share information about vessels known or suspected of engaging in illegal fishing activities.

ENS coordinated the exchange of intelligence among countries along the vessel’s route as it attempted to evade detention traveling from East Asia to Africa and back to Southeast Asia.  ENS was eventually able to alert Indonesian authorities on the exact moment the vessel entered its waters, leading to the immediate capture by the Indonesian Navy.

After the ship was impounded, ENS examined the evidence found onboard, e.g., computer systems, navigational instruments and the captain’s mobile phone, to piece together the actors involved in the wider criminal web.  In due course, ENS was able to pass along information to law enforcement agencies in a number of countries to track down other criminals, including document forgers and money launderers. 

The ENS’s findings also triggered financial investigations which ultimately connected the ship to organized crime in Europe.  Moreover, it was established that the majority of crew members were victims of labor exploitation.

ASEAN promotes transparency, openness to combat IUU fishing

In a latest move against IUU fishing, ASEAN member states in October 2020 established the ASEAN Network for Combating IUU Fishing (AN-IUU) for the purpose of facilitating and providing a cooperation framework to share information, disseminate best practices and build capacity in the areas of monitoring, control and surveillance.

The AN-IUU, which is also a platform to foster closer collaboration between ASEAN and other governments and nongovernmental organizations, will complement existing mechanisms such as the Regional Plan of Action to Promote Responsible Fishing Practices including Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing in the Region (RPOA-IUU) and the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC).

Fisheries play an important role in Southeast Asia’s food security, poverty reduction, employment, and economy.  ASEAN recognizes the negative impact that IUU fishing is having on the region and is thus determine to root out this problem.

Image credit: Eo naya /

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