• Peaches Lauren Vergara

IUU Fishing Campaign in the Philippines: Shifting mitigation focus and embracing technology

Photo Source: ABS CBN

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a perennial global challenge threatening marine ecosystems and undercutting initiatives in sustainable fisheries management and marine biodiversity conservation. The Food and Agriculture Organization defines it as encompassing “fishing and fishing-related activities conducted in contravention of national, regional and international laws; non-reporting, misreporting or under-reporting of information on fishing operations and their catches; fishing by “Stateless” vessels; fishing in convention areas of Regional Fisheries Management Organizations by non-party vessels; and fishing activities which are not regulated by States and cannot be easily monitored and accounted for.” This rather amorphous definition is naturally subject to States’ different interpretations and diverse applications by virtue of their varying local contexts. In addition, IUU fishing involves highly academic exercises of classification and measurement owing to its ‘complex’ and ‘clandestine’ nature. All these factors impede efforts at accurate data gathering and narrowing information gaps related to IUU fishing. Nevertheless, recognizing the significance of quantifying its prevalence, extent and impact in designing sound mitigation strategies, governments have been increasingly prioritizing this endeavor. The most widely cited estimate of global IUU fishing was placed between 10 to 26 million metric tons (MT) annually valued at US$10 to 23 billion in 2003.

In the Philippines, IUU fishing estimates come from multifarious sources, varying not only in value ranges but also in what is being measured. The 2013 National Action Plan Against IUU fishing cited economic loss amounting to some Php37 billion (US$917 million) annually from poaching alone. Meanwhile, the case study on IUU fishing in the Sulawesi Sea provided different estimates at various periods of time: a 2003 academic study that valued excessive fishing losses at Php6.25 billion (US$125 million), and the Philippine Navy’s 2008 appraisal of an average annual revenue loss of Php74 million (US$1.6 million) specifically from illegal fishing in the Sulu-Sulawesi region (excluding undocumented IUU fishing activities). Recent media and literature estimates indicated annual losses of US$88 million, US$1.37 billion , and US$10 billion . Meanwhile, experts observe government approximations focusing more on input-based metrics (e.g. number of patrols, apprehensions and fines collected) and less on outcome indicators. This approach has had the following implications: 1) estimates have failed to reflect the magnitude of the problem as well as the progress of policy interventions aimed at eliminating, reducing and preventing IUU fishing in the country; and 2) responses have been largely geared towards law enforcement.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Fish Right Program, a collaboration between the U.S. and Philippine Governments, seeks to address these gaps through a holistic approach that highlights the benefits of compliance and not just the importance of deterrence. This strategic thrust appears premised on the “what can be measured can be managed” argument. It presupposes the vital role of a sound quantification methodology in enabling targeted responses that are symmetrical to the scale and intensity level of IUU fishing’s impact on local sustainable fishing. In September 2020, under the Program’s auspices, USAID, the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), Rare Philippines, the Marine Environment Resources Foundation, Inc., together with the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute and School of Statistics, led the first documented IUU fishing quantification initiative. Based on experts’ estimates, illegal fishing comprised 27 to 40 percent of the total fish caught, valued up to 62.6 billion (US$1.3 million) annually. They estimated 274,000-422,000 MT/year of catches from commercial fishing were unreported, while up to 125,000 municipal fishing vessels and 2,700 commercial fishing vessels remained unregistered or incorrectly registered. While predominantly perception-based, these approximations represent a welcome starting point towards quantifying IUU fishing prevalence and impacts in the country. Consequently, one of the key takeaways from the study is that the wide approximation ranges yielded underscore the need to develop and test new and more accurate quantifying methods. The second component of the Program’s approach, the development of a Fishing Index and Assessment Tool, would be critical to this task.

The Program’s blueprint highlights that the regulation-focused approach of existing policy frameworks and strategies has been insufficient. Despite the tighter guidelines and heftier fines imposed by the 2015 Republic Act 10654 or the Amended Fisheries Act, IUU fishing remains prevalent. The shift to a more integrative mitigation strategy that incorporates science-based methodologies, as well as compliance-focused approaches that will benefit legal fisherfolk and commercial entities is therefore only rational. Previous governments have indeed invested significant resources in advancing this advocacy through national legal and administrative as well as local/community reforms but without properly guided, evidence-based evaluation measures to contribute to the objective of increasing sustainable production and raising incomes of local fishermen, such efforts would be rendered futile.

In transitioning from the traditional approach of punishment and fines to incentivizing compliance, the advantages and viability of emerging technology to enhance traceability should also be explored. Investments in traceability systems have largely been driven by food safety regulation practices in the past decades, stemming from issues of illegal harvesting of seafood and mislabeling of seafood products. Since then, motivations for utilizing traceability systems have been tied in with environmental sustainability and social responsibility in the global seafood sector. In addressing IUU fishing, applying interoperable traceability technology has been proposed to enhance access to fish source information and ban the entry of illegal/undocumented produce from supply chains. A relatively novel undertaking, this innovation has its fair share of barriers and gaps (e.g. interoperability between systems, data capture and management and documentation on financial gains) it needs to tackle. In the current state of the Philippines, capacity challenges in adopting information systems, and serious questions about applicability to the mass population can easily be predicted. However, the premise of consumers driving market preferences for legally caught seafood is aligned with the whole-of-society approach envisioned by USAID-BFAR that enjoins the participation and cooperation of the public and other stakeholders, which make probing into this technological development opportune. Over the short-term period, revisiting and revitalizing bilateral and multilateral arrangements and sharing information and technological advancements with neighboring countries are also useful steps to bolster its campaign against IUU fishing.


Peaches Lauren Vergara is an Australia Awards scholar who recently completed her Master of International Security degree (with Distinction) from The University of Sydney. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Development Studies from The University of the Philippines-Manila. She had been a Political Researcher and Policy/Program Officer in the Australian Embassy prior to pursuing her post-graduate studies.

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