The killing of Cecil the lion has thrust the issue of wildlife crime into the international spotlight. And for good reason: wildlife crime is a highly profitable form of global organized crime that imperils precious natural resources and, at a minimum, offends our sense of equity and fair play. Far less publicized is that some of the largest volume of such crime happens not on land but in the sea through illegal fishing.

Overfishing is a key environmental challenge of our time. Experts estimate that, globally, 29 percent of assessed fish stocks are biologically overfished—up from 10 percent in 1970. Illegal, unregulated, or unreported fishing is a large contributor to this problem.


I’ve been working with governments to improve fisheries management for more than 10 years and have seen the devastating effects of illegal fishing, particularly by large vessels, on fish stocks, the environment, and the economies of coastal communities in places like Sierra Leone. However, in the past six months, I’ve noticed a convergence of improved surveillance technology, public awareness, and government interest that has given me hope that we can turn the tide on illegal fishing.

Technology for tracking fishing vessels is improving and its use is expanding. Many governments are requiring fishing vessels to use satellite transponders and are tracking the vessels’ movements, even in the most remote locations of the sea. In May, I sat in a room with fisheries officials on a tiny Pacific Island watching a screen with real-time positions of fishing vessels throughout the country’s waters, thanks to the region’s satellite monitoring system. Finding vessels that do not use satellite transponders could soon become easier thanks to new initiatives. For example, Google, Oceana, and SkyTruth are developing a tool that will capture and publicly display satellite feeds from a system used by almost all ocean-going vessels—a tool that can classify the vessels’ movements as “fishing” or “non-fishing.” Fishermen also have new tracking tools. Off the coast of Liberia, some have used smart phones equipped with a trawler-spotter app to send government authorities both global positioning data and photos of vessels fishing illegally.

Consumers are increasingly checking eco-labels to see whether their seafood has been sustainably harvested. Major retailers such as Costco and Walmart have committed to stocking their shelves with eco-labeled seafood products. The number of seafood products certified with the Marine Stewardship Council label has grown exponentially in the last five years. The products bearing that label or in the process of review to obtain it represent more than 10 percent of the global fish catch.

Governments are taking illegal fishing seriously. Since mid-2014, Indonesia has dramatically increased surveillance and sanctions of illegal fishing vessels in its waters, in some cases sinking the boats after clearing their crews. In 2010, the European Union passed a regulation requiring seafood products entering its market to be certified as legally caught by the country from which the products are exported or in which fishing vessels are registered. That regulation has increased enforcement in countries supplying the European market. Last year, the United States created a presidential task force to develop a plan to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud. That group recommended measures to increase satellite tracking of fishing vessels and improve tracking of fish from boat to plate.

New monitoring technologies, greater awareness in the marketplace, and serious commitment (and action) by governments are real progress. But actually ending illegal fishing will require more. For example, governments could take a simple and virtually cost-free step: publicly disclosing the vessels they have licensed to legally fish in their waters. I’ve seen that one action significantly curb illegal fishing in West Africa, and I hope more governments will make the commitment to fishing transparency at the Our Ocean conference in Chile this October.

Ending illegal fishing has been a goal of the international community for decades, but for the first time it may just be achievable with the cooperation of all stakeholders: communities, consumers, companies and governments. We’ve thus far proved unequal to the task of protecting many of our charismatic land animals, like Cecil, but we’re now in a position to better protect the fish in our oceans—and, in the process, to sustain a valuable source of food and livelihoods for millions. 

Virdin directs the Ocean and Coastal Policy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.