US$142.8 million potentially lost each year to illicit fishing in the South West Indian Ocean

Posted on 04 May 2023

New research on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing of shrimp and tuna species uncovers massive economic losses to Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania.
A new WWF report exposes the potential annual financial losses incurred as a result of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing of shrimp and tuna species in the South West Indian Ocean (SWIO) between 2015 and 2021 – the regional waters off the coasts of Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania. 

As much as US$142.8 million of potential income was lost from the region every year (2015-2021) as a result of combined potential IUU fishing activities linked to these two species. Between 2016 and 2021, around 36% of all fishing effort was potentially IUU fishing.

Umair Shahid, WWF’s Indian Ocean Tuna Manager said, “At next week’s Indian Ocean Tuna Commission meeting, all nations who are accountable for fishing activities in this region must definitively scrub the deck clean of illicit fishing that puts regional food security and livelihoods at risk, and tarnishes the reputations of those who have made international commitments to sustainable fisheries and seafood under the UN Sustainable Development Goals, UN high seas treaty and more. There can be no further objections to measures for sustainable fisheries management. All nations must come together to put an end to IUU fishing and ensure transparency and traceability across the seafood supply chains entering European markets.”

The Indian Ocean is the world’s second largest tuna production area behind the Western Pacific. Globally, shrimp made up 16.4% of total seafood exports in 2020, followed by tuna, with the majority of these products entering high-income markets in North America, Europe and Japan. While most of the demand for shrimp is met by farmed products, wild-capture shrimp, such as those in the SWIO, can come at a premium. [1] 

WWF’s report shows that EU Member States are responsible for some of the highest levels of fishing effort in SWIO waters and represent some of the region’s primary trade partners for tuna and shrimp products. WWF is looking to the EU delegation to take a strong stand at next week’s Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) meeting to ensure robust, adequate and binding measures are adopted to see that fishing activities by both local and foreign fleets are sustainable in the long term.  


Overfishing of tuna is a persistent problem in the Indian Ocean.  In the case of yellowfin tuna, for example, 37% of catches were juveniles and 53.7% were below the optimum length between 2015 and 2019 [2]. For overfished species, IUU fishing further aggravates pressures on populations to recover, putting both the future of fisheries and the health of the wider ocean food web at risk. 

Two types of fleets principally operate in this ocean: industrial distant water fishing nations (DWFNs) that fish outside of their own territories and coastal small-scale fleets. Ineffective fisheries monitoring leaves DWFNs, with their immense vessels, open to engaging in IUU fishing on scales that wipe out local resources and add pressure on already overfished stocks, in turn creating a level of demand that is filled to some extent by IUU fishing.

Nearly half (48.7%) of all tuna fishing effort in the region between 2016 and 2021 was potentially illegal or unregulated activity. On average, the potential economic losses to the region from IUU tuna fishing between 2015 and 2021 amounted to roughly US$95.8 million each year.

From 2016 to 2021, DWFNs were responsible for roughly 78% of all tuna catches, with Spain having the fifth-highest amount of fishing effort in the exclusive economic zones of the SWIO nations. France, Portugal and Spain were three of the five primary trade partners for the region. The EU thus plays a crucial role to influence and uphold best practices in sustainable fisheries, seafood traceability and accurate trade reporting to combat IUU fishing. 

Shrimps and prawns

Semi-industrial and industrial shrimp and prawn fisheries represent some of the main sources of foreign income tied to natural resources for Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya. Despite continuous overfishing of one of the main shrimp stocks leading to more stringent management measures, populations continue to broadly decline. [3]

Potential economic losses stemming from IUU fishing for shrimps and prawns amounted to roughly US$47 million each year between 2015 and 2021. Over a quarter (26.4%) of all shrimp fishing activities were potentially illegal and unregulated between 2016 and 2021. 

Once again, EU Member States have a strong presence in the region over the same period: Greece and Portugal were two of the main DWFNs present in the exclusive economic zones of the focal countries (accounting for roughly 8% of total apparent shrimp fishing effort between 2016 and 2021), while France, Portugal and Spain were in the group of primary shrimp trade partners for the region. As shrimp are an essential species for local nutrition and play a crucial role in the wider food web upon which other commercial fisheries depend, including tuna, EU fishing and trade activities must not be complicit in fueling the decline of these species. 

An immediate opportunity to take action

The potential economic losses incurred from IUU fishing not only impact the development, prosperity and food security of nations in this region, but threaten seafood trade flows to international markets dependent on SWIO species. Regional cooperation between the SWIO nations and at regional fora like the IOTC to address these issues is now imperative.

Antonia Leroy, Head of Ocean Policy at the WWF European Policy Office said, “EU nations are some of the key market States for seafood products exported from this region, meaning the EU has a duty of care to ensure that what it imports is not linked with illegal fishing. This is especially true for shrimp, where traceability regulations are almost nonexistent, as well as for the practices of the EU’s own tuna fleets, which must be effectively monitored to uphold the sustainable fisheries values they preach at home. Illicit fishing activities cannot continue to deprive the region of economic opportunities and jeopardise thousands of livelihoods.” 

WWF is calling on next week’s IOTC Commission meeting to adopt three key Resolutions to address IUU fishing and secure sustainable fisheries and seafood trade flows:
  • A long-debated Resolution for a new compliance mechanism must be adopted to  increase fisheries’ accountability and support; ensuring transparency in the compliance assessment process will better identify why countries have difficulty fully implementing agreed measures. 
  • Adopt the Resolution on boarding and inspection schemes on the high seas to improve the timeliness and technical capabilities of inspecting vessels engaged in suspicious activity; these efforts will improve cost-efficiencies in vessel surveillance and limit opportunities for fraud.
  • Bring Indian Ocean tuna fisheries out of the shadows by adopting a regional electronic monitoring program (e.g. onboard cameras, sensors) in the IOTC area of competence to improve vessel observer coverage and data collection for what is caught.

The IOTC must ensure that its complex seascape, with highly influential stakeholders from within the region as well as from the EU and China, has robust rules and tools in place to fight IUU fishing and ensure a healthy ocean with vibrant fisheries for generations to come. 

  1. FAO (2020). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020; FAO (2022). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022; Grand View Research, Inc. (2022). Shrimp Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Species (L. vannamei, P. monodon) By Source (Wild, Aquaculture), By Form, By Distribution Channel, By Region, And Segment Forecasts, 2022 - 2030.
  2. Global Tuna Alliance (2021). Sustainability of yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) fisheries in the Indian Ocean, with a special focus on juvenile catches.
  3. Harris A and Gove D (2015). South West Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission: Ten Years Promoting And Strengthening Regional Cooperation For Securing Sustainable Fisheries In South West Indian Ocean (SWIO) Region. SWIOFC, supported by WWF; FAO (2022). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022.
New research on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing of shrimp and tuna species uncovers massive economic losses to Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania.