Corruption in Fisheries and Food Security




Key Summary:
  • Globally, food security relies on protein from the ocean, particularly as demand for fish increases.
  • Policy making and policy ownership for food security has many participants and stakeholders.
  • Illegal fishing and corruption in fisheries undermines blue economy goals and policy on sustainable fisheries.
  • The Indo-Pacific region needs aligned responses to control illegal fishing and enabling crimes such as corruption and document fraud.
  • Policies to address corruption in fisheries fall in many domains - law enforcement, diplomacy, development aid, human rights and consumer rights.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2017) notes that healthy and abundantly stocked oceans suitable for fisheries and tourism are vital for our region. 

Fisheries will continue as the main source of protein in the future, and securing sustainability is fundamental for food security. In order to ensure current stocks are managed and declining stocks once again thrive, existing global, regional and domestic regulations must be adopted and enforced to minimise and potentially eliminate illegal fishing as well as corruption that exists in this area.  

There is increasing reliance on fish for food security. Since the 1960s annual global per capita fish consumption has increased from 9.9kg to 19.2kg. Approximately 30% of stock is fished at biologically unsustainable levels and  the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates around 58% of fish stocks globally are already decimated due to unsustainable practices, illegal fishing, pollution and habitat loss – further threatened by climate change (FAO, 2016: 5-7).

It is estimated that 26 million tons of fish are illegally caught each year amounting to approximately 15% of globally caught fish valued at US$23.5 billion annually (FAO, 2016). In developing nations alone, illegal fishing costs up to $15 billion annually (Liddick, 2014: 290). In the Indo-Pacific, the problem is magnified. Fishing contributes considerably to GDP and to supporting livelihoods of local fishers.

Illegality in fisheries is essentially a law enforcement issue. However for many Indo-Pacific states the main sources of income are development aid and sale of fishing rights and licences. This creates opportunities for corruption. 

Types of corruption that have been observed in the literature and in various reports include:

  • Ministerial interference in official processes;
  • Diverting license fees into personal overseas private bank accounts (ministers and officials);
  • ‘Private’ licensing by fisheries officials of vessels that do not show up on the government books;
  • Payment of overseas tuition fees for the children of ministers;
  • Large-scale financial transactions facilitating organised criminal behaviour;
  • Conflict of interest where officials are on retainer to trade in information;
  • Port inspectors go easy on some vessels (not verifying logbooks/ turning blind eye to infractions) in return for cash or gifts; and
  • Receiving direct payments from overseas fishing companies in return for favourable license conditions.

The FAO has an international plan of action to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IPOA-IUU). This highly relevant but non-legally binding instrument is concerned primarily with food security and conservation of fish stocks and provides a framework to support development of regional and domestic responses to sustainable fishing (FAO, 2001).

Absent from the IPOA-IUU are peripheral issues such as inadequate work and pay conditions for fishers aboard vessels. This facilitates the continuation of illegal fishing by keeping operational costs low. Additionally, corrupt border officials neglect to intercept and disrupt illegal fishing and therefore must form part of parallel domestic and regional responses.

Even if illegality can be reduced, corruption can undermine the supply of fish in a sustainable, environmentally responsible way. To effectively respond to corruption in fisheries requires a dynamic and regionally coordinated response.

SDGs to prevent illegal fishing to achieve zero hunger

    The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals 14.4 and 14.6 outline plans to end illegal fishing through greater regulatory control (United Nations, 2015). Fishing beyond any nation’s territorial waters is well regulated via a range of international laws and policies (Lindley & Techera, 2017). Several international instruments exist to address illegal fishing in some way.

    Blue economy goals are a vehicle to respond

    In the Indo-Pacific, focus has turned to development of a blue economy agenda, relying on wealth generated from healthy oceans (Voyer et al., 2018). Blue economy goals often provide for sustainable fisheries.

    Progress curtailed by corruption

    Corruption undermines the blue economy. Specific cases such as those listed above have been documented in the literature (UNODC, 2019; Yan & Graycar, 2020). Corruption of ministers and officials, while not the norm, does exist and shows blatant disregard for their responsibilities. They seek personal gain from their entrusted office.

    Policy Implications

    Numerous international laws and regulations focus on supporting sustainable fisheries. Given the extent of legal and regulatory responses already available, illegal fishing should be controlled, however this is not the case. In fact, treaty congestion may overwhelm responses (Lindley & Techera, 2017). The inability to meet obligations due to political, economic and legal barriers for example, may be among the reasons for lacking universal adoption.

    Illegal fishing is the result of failing political will to prevent it and two policy responses might be pursued.

    First, it should be noted that illegal fishing follows from a lack of, or lax control over fisheries and this allows an illicit industry to thrive.  In addition to trying to overcome the failure to implement international, regional and domestic responses which are aimed at illegal fishing, the net should be widened to peripheral crimes such as corruption, document fraud, money laundering and human trafficking. These enabling crimes may be a more amenable place to start. Responding to fisheries via the corruption backchannel may appear arbitrary, but would be a foundation to build on (Lindley, 2020).

    The second involves addressing consumer-driven demand for fish. The absence of transparent labelling fails the consumer by disempowering an informed decision. If consumers are aware of the potential criminal activities, including document fraud to create fake fishing licenses, forced labour of fishers, offshore transhipment to mix legal and illegal fish to hoodwink authorities, and corruption at the border to dodge inspection, they may opt for fish with clearly labelled provenance. While standards and regulations exist, it is not enough. Emerging technology is proving to be a sound investment to increase traceability of catches (see for example Widowati, Andayani, & Maryanto, 2019). Political will to enhance fisheries control and drive down demand for unsustainable fish is part of the solution.

    Policy Recommendations
    • Policymakers should look to existing international platforms from which to build responses, but be pressed to demonstrate political will to adopt and progress responses.
    • Commitment to the blue economy agenda prioritising sustainable fisheries will support healthy ocean for generations to come.
    • Fish know no legal borders, so establishing regional responses reduces criminal displacement creeping to other parts of the region.
    • Denial of opportunity to illegally fish by disrupting enabling crimes, such as corruption at the border and document fraud.
    • The consumer has a role in championing sustainable change through purchasing power.


    Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2017) 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.
    Food and Agriculture Organization (2001) International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing.

    Food and Agriculture Organization (2016). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture: Contributing to Food Security and Nutrition for All.
    Liddick D. (2014) ‘The dimensions of a transnational crime problem: the case of IUU fishing’, Trends in Organized Crime, 17(4), 290-312.
    Lindley J. (2020) ‘Criminal Threats Undermining Indo-Pacific Maritime Security: Can International Law Build Resilience?’, Journal of Asian Economic Integration, 2(2), 206-220.
    Lindley J., & Techera, E. (2017) ‘Overcoming complexity in illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing to achieve effective regulatory pluralism’, Marine Policy, 81.
    UNODC (2019) Rotten Fish: A Guide On Addressing Corruption in the Fisheries Sector. Vienna: UN
    United Nations (2015) ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable DevelopmentGeneral Assembly Resoultion A/RES/70/1. New York
    Voyer M., Schofield C., Azmi K., Warner R, McIlgorm A. & Quirk G (2018) ‘Maritime security and the Blue Economy: intersections and interdependencies in the Indian Ocean’, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, 14:1, 28-48
    Widowati, T.A., Andayani N. & Maryanto, A.E. (2019) ‘Application of DNA barcoding to detect mislabeling of fish fillet products from Jabodetabek’s market, IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, 538(012021).

    Yan Y., & Graycar A. (2020) ‘Exploring corruption in fisheries’, Natural Resources Forum, 44, 176–190.

    About the Authors: Adam Graycar is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Adelaide and Director, Stretton Institute. He has worked in both government and academia and has published extensively on integrity and corruption. Dr Jade Lindley is a crimologist and senior lecturer at the UWA Law School. Her research intersects with pertinent global issues relating to human, border, environmental and food security. She is particularly interested in the criminal motivations to offend and the responses to control these crimes.

    The views expressed here are the authors', and may not necessarily represent the views of the Stretton Institute.

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    Tagged in policy matters, corruption, fisheries, food security, agrifood policy