The oceans are vast and humans are small — as the monthlong hunt for a vanished Malaysian jetliner demonstrates. Think of the challenge, then, for law enforcement and fisheries managers in going after fleets of shady boats that engage in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. These criminals ply the seas and sell their catches with impunity, making off with an estimated 11 million to 26 million metric tons of stolen fish each year, a worldwide haul worth about $10 billion to $23.5 billion. Many use banned gear like floating gillnets, miles long, that indiscriminately slaughter countless unwanted fish along with seabirds, marine mammals, turtles and other creatures.
The danger that illegal fishing poses to vulnerable ocean ecosystems is self-evident, but the harm goes beyond that. Illegal competition hurts legitimate commercial fleets. And lawless fishermen are prone to other crimes, like forced labor and drug smuggling. The convergence of illegal fishing with other criminal enterprises makes it in every country’s interest to devise an effective response.
That’s the job of the Port State Measures Agreement. It is a treaty adopted by the United Nations in 2009 that seeks to thwart the poachers in ports when they try to unload their ill-gotten catches. Many countries have been unable or unwilling to enforce their own laws to crack down on poachers flying their flags.
This treaty allows coastal nations to deny port entry and services to foreign vessels suspected of illegal fishing. A suspect vessel could be immediately inspected or turned away, and other ports warned. Port-side enforcement would help keep illegally caught fish out of the marketplace while giving the authorities another means to check fishing vessels for abused and imprisoned crews, trafficked immigrants and illegal drugs.
The treaty will not go into force until 25 countries ratify it. It now has 11 signatories, including the European Union. The United States Senate ratified the treaty on April 3. The next step is for Congress to pass legislation to codify how to enforce the treaty’s provisions. It should do so swiftly, allowing the United States to help lead this global effort to take the profit out of poaching.