Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing as a National Security Threat to Indian Sovereignty

Upama Nandy


Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a public security concern since it sabotages the sovereignty and security of a nation by undermining its sea security and marine defense structures thus affecting the overall administrative control of a country. IUU fishing progressively erodes the world's economic and social order (Cutlip, 2016). IUU fishing receives maximum acknowledgment when it comes to economic, administrative, ecological, and food security-based threats and challenges. However, this acknowledgment has mostly remained in deliberations and seldom evolved into laws and conventions. Being a non-traditional security threat, IUU is a latent force of destruction for a State's jurisdiction. It remains unresponsive and undervalued in most nation-based policies including global sanctions. States such as China have been operating distant water fishing fleets that often fish in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of other States (Urbina, 2020). IUU fishing vessels are also alleged to masquerade unauthorized criminal activities of human trafficking, drug smuggling, and illegal weapon merchandising (Understanding Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing, 2020). Such revelations have been used as a precedent to encourage States to grow their domestic maritime laws and enforce stringency when it comes to IUU fishing. In certain cases, this has also established regulations that secure the violation of State sovereignty through evolved maritime sanctions. Instances, where aggressive States have occupied foreign fishing boats in an attempt to arbitrarily regulate IUU, have created more complexities in the already inefficient global approach to the crisis (Conservation, 2020).

IUU Fishing in the Indian Ocean

Accounting for 14.55% of Indian Ocean fisheries is extremely important to the global maritime association ((TMT), 2020). The updated statistics show that fishing activities have been steadily increasing over the years, making the Indian Ocean area a strategically important economic activity zone. IUU fishing has had acute ramifications on the economy of the nation concerned as well as the aquatic life occupying the region, this essentially negates the ecological sustainability of the area. The escalation of marine-based fishing activities especially in countries that have a major sector of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) depending on import and export of seafood has resulted in severe challenges when it comes to prohibiting IUU products. These immoral enterprises put the primary shareholders along the seafood market hierarchy at risk. It also endangers riverine societies or coastal communities, especially in third world nations. Both higher-end and menial fishing agencies face tragic losses due to IUU fishing and raging fraudulent activities.

The global priority with respect to the Indian ocean has been illegal and unreported fishing to some extent (Smith, 2020). However, the unregulated aspect of it is often ignored. This highlights the lack of stringency and a need for revised inspection of the degradation of ecological sustainability as well as the economic repercussions due to IUU fishing. Automated Identification System (AIS) data (Arampatzis, 2019) is a contemporary mechanism that investigates the perils of unauthorized fishing with respect to ocean sustainability. Besides the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, there is no international arrangement for the Indian Ocean region to combat IUU fishing in the open sea (Secretariat, 2017). So, besides the tuna or fishes that can qualify in the same category, all other species are continuously under the threat of being subjected to authorized fishing traits. In the context of squid fishery alone, the expansion of vessels to unregulated fisheries expanded by 830% in 5 years, i.e., from 30 vessels in 2015 to 279 at the end of 2019 (TMT, 2020). Unregulated fishing is the most difficult to tackle since it leaves no virtual evidence and successfully escapes both surveillance and record systems (Gelpke, 2013). Coastal authorities are extremely unequipped to deal with the situation and mostly fail to recognize the fraudulent steamers. The repercussions of being unable to conserve the sustainability of fishing banks in the Indian Ocean can lead to an increase in IUU activities and further erode the biodiversity in that region. Areas that go beyond the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMO) in the Indian Ocean, are affected by IUU fishing as their aquatic food web also gets disrupted leading to massive non-regulation in their ecology. This has direct implications for the economies of many countries dependent on this region for marine sustenance. These often include varieties of life that have commercial and market value along with species that act as pacifiers and regulators of future ocean health and temperatures. The circulation and altering of species figures can cause negative changes in the ocean. This also adds to the already present crisis of dearth of regulation.

Degradation activities of IUU fishing often target the precious hot spots of threatened species. The Southern Indian Ocean Fisheries Agreement, SIOFA (Fisheries in the Southern Ocean: An Ecosystem Approach, 2007) is mandated to promote preservation and conservation of the ecology of the aquatic life present in the Indian Ocean. Its administration is also trained to identify vessels that are foreign and whose activities are suspicious or skeptical. Vulnerable marine ecosystems (VME) are their priority and they assign them to the Protected Areas (PA) where scrutiny is maximum compared to the other regions. However, the sanctions of SIOFA haven’t evolved over the years. Their primitive and rudimentary regulatory laws demand more efficiency as well.

India's Legal Framework to Address IUU Fishing

The Indian coastline is 7,517 kilometres and has a collective of nine coastal regions and a total of four union territories that boast of a coastal boundary (Kuller, 2016). Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha, Maharashtra, Goa and West Bengal constitute the coastal states. The Government of India has bureaucratic and legislative control over the high seas in these areas, which extends up to 12 nautical miles from the territorial water body. India has taken several measures to protect its Exclusive Economic Zone, (EEZ), by mandating stringent laws and improving Centre and State relations in an attempt to strengthen the legislation that prohibit illegal activities in these regions. The Government of India has taken recent initiatives to open a fluid line of communication with these regions and hold regular meetings to discuss proposals of conservation (Haneef, 2017).

Some of the legal measures that have been taken by the Indian Government include the Regulation of Foreign Vessels Act, 1981, which sanctions and recognizes Indian Coast Guards in international waters. It also actively prohibits foreign steamers to fish in Indian waters. Marine Fishing Regulation Act, 1983 has often been amended by the Parliament to promote surveillance, supervision, and monitoring of Indian coastal areas, including Union Territories. Merchant Shipping Act, 1958, was an attempt to mandate licensing of Indian vessels and was complimented by the implementation of ReALCraft ( to do the same online. The Central government also authorizes biometric identity cards for the mariners. However, the rates of registration have reduced over the years. National Policy on Marine Fisheries, 2017, advocates guidelines for preservation, determent, and prohibition of IUU fishing in Indian waters. Regulations that assure protection and security to ships that charter the EEZs of India also support the elimination of IUU fishing activities. The added burden of smuggling, trafficking, drug dealing, and other heinous crimes is another reason why India is trying to enhance its high sea security forces.

The National Fisheries Policy, 2020 (National Fisheries Policy, 2020) has highlighted the need to curb IUU fishing and enhance the nation’s marine defense. It has attempted to rejuvenate existing fishery banks and enhance inter-state collaboration in these marine regions. The tourism aspect that is a major mode of sustenance for coastal regions, was also addressed through this policy. Despite having several legislative and juridical provisions, curbing IUU fishing activities hasn’t been as easy as one would deem. The Indian Government has also tried to establish a system of geographically locating its vessels through transponder and communication systems that facilitate the same. The government has reiterated that it, “will establish a sound mechanism to ensure that the Indian fishing fleet does not engage in IUU fishing.” (Relations, 2018). The coastal police along with the Indian coast guards are extremely valuable when it comes to staying alert about such illegal activities. The National Fisheries Policy recognizes their essence along with indicating an interest in benefiting through the resources that the international waters provide, whilst adhering to the international conventions. The most concrete facet of this policy understands the correlation between IUU fishing threats and maritime defense systems and recognizes the need to protect and preserve the same. This policy also highlights the spheres in which India can form alliances with other States and international organizations to combat the vulnerabilities of the high seas and form a mutually beneficial relationship.

India is a stakeholder in three regional multilateral treaty organizations, and these include, the Bay of Bengal Programme, Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association India. All three recognize IUU fishing as a non-traditional security threat and underline the importance of combating the same. They also simultaneously promote inter-state relations and form a collective front for sea security. Even though their specializations vary from species preservation to vessel tracking, they are unanimous on their stand to protect the Indian waters and promote the security of domestic fisheries. India ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, (UNCLOS) in 1995 and has had nearly continuous representation on the Commission on the Limits on the Continental Shelf, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas (ITLOS), and the International Seabed Authority since their inception in 1997, 1996, and 1