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Study maps risks of labour abuse and illegal fishing at world’s ports. A new study performed at Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University has identified the regions and ports at highest risk for labour abuse and illegal fishing. Of more than 750 ports assessed around the world, more than half are associated with risk of labour abuse or illegal fishing.

Monitoring the world’s fishing fleets for labour abuse and illegal fishing can be as challenging as the ocean is vast, but new data could help companies and countries intervene more effectively.

Academics from Stanford University and Stockholm Resilience Centre have identified the regions and ports at highest risk for labour abuse and illegal fishing.

The findings, published in Nature Communications, indicate two main risk factors: the country that a vessel is registered to, also known as its ‘flag state’ and the type of fishing gear the vessel carries onboard.

The results offer policymakers and regulators with a set of vessel characteristics and regions to pay more attention to when sourcing seafood.

“We hope these findings can help to inform strategically expanded enforcement, focus development aid investments and increase traceability, ultimately lowering the chance that seafood associated with labour abuse or illegal fishing makes its way to market,” said Elizabeth Selig, lead author, Stanford Centre for Ocean Solutions

Using an online survey of experts, the researchers also found that labour abuse and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing are globally pervasive: Of more than 750 ports assessed around the world, more than half are associated with risk of one or both practices.

However, in addition to revealing the global extent of these risks, the study also highlights potential pathways to reduce these risks through actions at port that detect and respond to labour abuse and deter the landing of illegally caught fish.

Said co-author Henrik Österblom, science director at the Stockholm Resilience Centre:

“The ten largest seafood producers in the world have committed to reduce the risk of IUU fishing and labour abuse in their operations as part of their commitments to ocean stewardship through the SeaBOS initiative. They have asked us to help them prioritise their voluntary actions and this study represent our assessment of how they can identify potential labour abuse and illegal fishing from their supply chains.”

For fishing vessels, coastal regions off West Africa, Peru, Argentina, the Falkland Islands, and the Azores had higher risks for labour abuse and IUU fishing. The model also demonstrate how vessels registered to countries that have poor control of corruption, vessels owned by countries other than the flag state and vessels registered to China have a higher risk of engaging in illegal activities.

Chinese-flagged vessels, comprising the world’s largest fishing fleet, dominated the data and were thus analysed separately. For transshipment, certain fishing gear types – like drifting longliners, set longliners, squid jiggers and trawlers – were found to be higher risk.

The study also showed a strong presence of foreign-flagged vessels in fishing grounds thousands of miles away from where they bring their catch to port. This suggests that ports with weak monitoring standards can incentivize illegal activities far away, highlighting the need for coordinated regional action.

Risk maps for labour abuse and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing at port. The maps indicate risk scores of ports assessed in the survey for (a) labour abuse and (b) illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. Blue indicates lower port risk scores and red denotes higher risk scores.

The study team analysed the effectiveness of port measures for mitigating risks of these illegal practices. For labour abuse, they analysed how long vessels spend in port, finding that riskier vessels have shorter port durations, which reduces the odds that port officials can intervene or that workers can access port services.

“Ports are one of the few places to identify and respond to labour abuse,” said Jessica Sparks, a fellow at the Stanford Centre for Ocean Solutions and associate director at the University of Nottingham Rights Lab.

“We need to ensure that policies and practices allow fishers to access trusted actors and services at port so they can safely report on their condition.”

Read Revealing global risks of labour abuse and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing