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ICE Case Studies
Number 107, November, 2002


Anthony M. Kopetchny

Over Fishing and the Use of Satellites in Monitoring and Protecting the Fish Population


  1. Abstract Fish stocks worldwide are at dangerously low levels due to over fishing. Over fishing occurs when a species is fished in mass quantities and is not given adequate time to reproduce its population. With the advancements of modern technologies for locating fertile fishing areas and the intense fishing fleets of the developed nations, fish have little chance for survival In addition, many developing countries, Western and Southern Africa especially, are losing their catch to industrial fisherman from various regions of the world. Many of the developing countries whose stocks are being threatened rely on fish for a majority of their protein intake. Another dimension of this problem is IUU fishing, (ILLEGAL UNREPORTED UNREGULATED) fishing or piracy which the FAO has estimated to be responsible for up to 30% of catch totals in some fisheries. Pirate fishing is promoted by the price some countries pay for fresh fish and the inability to enforce penalties, such as confiscating equipment including the offending vessel. Over fishing is a transnational concern which needs immediate and sustainable solutions. Among the successful proposals is the use of satellites for monitoring the oceans. To examine this issue, first the areas of concern need to be established. Then it will become clear that satellites will be an effective tool to insure the vitality of the oceans. 2. Description This section presents four areas of concern which have contributed to over fishing; Exclusive Economic Zones and the Sale of Fishing Rights, European Union as a Super Fleet, China and Miscalculated Totals, Piracy: IUU Fishing and Straddling High Sea Borders. Then it will examine the use of satellites as a monitoring device and a useful tool in combating this issue. The goal is to utilize the panoptic ability of satellites to secure sustainable use of the oceans.

Exclusive Economic Zones and the Sale of Fishing Rights. The oceans are a major international resource that cover over 70% of the earth’s surface. 17% of animal protein intake by humans is from fish. 70 to 75 million tons of fish are caught each year of which 29 million tons are for human consumption. In some developing nations fish comprise an even larger percentage of consumption and are considered a staple in the local diet and the main source of protein. This is a main area of concern for developing countries in the Southern hemisphere since the super fleets in the Northern Hemisphere, mainly the European Union are purchasing fishing rights to countries, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in the South, which is still considered abundant fishing waters. The European Union is spending up to 200 million pounds a year to buy the rights to fish in these areas. “According to the FAO, nearly three quarters of all major marine fisheries should be off limits to fishing. Fifty percent are fully exploited, fifteen percent are over fished, six percent depleted, and two percent are recovering. The rest are under exploited (6%) or moderately exploited (20%).” (Lee A Kimball, International Ocean Governance, 2001) Approximately70% of fisheries lie within an Exclusive Economic Zone. An EEZ, as defined by Lee A. Kimball in her book INTERNATIONAL OCEAN GOVERNANCE, is the area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea which may not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the base line (where a country’s land merges with the sea). Inside an EEZ the coastal state has sovereign rights over natural resources and other economic uses and jurisdiction as specified in the Convention regarding marine scientific research and marine environmental protection. It is the governing states that are required to enforce regulations within their EEZ, thus when the rights are sold the country becomes subject to the loss of fish population with no course of action to prevent it. This is hurting local fishing industries and draining a cultural and staple food source from many developing countries. back to top of section

European Union as a Super Fleet

As a case study within the European Union and the effects of over fishing England is a prime example. The North Atlantic cod supply has been nearly extinguished; the traditional British dish of fish and chips may become a subject for history books unless serious action is taken. The North Sea has been so depleted that the EU is trying to have it protected as a fish sanctuary.

Currently in the North Sea a significant reduction in allowable catch quota for the cod, whiting, and haddock is in place. There are also large areas of the North Sea that are shut off from fishing. The EU is placing observers on ships to monitor catches. They are also implementing a plan for special permit registration for the right to fish in the North Sea. Recently large sections of the Irish sea have also been closed to cod fishing. In addition, the EU has recently called for a major reduction in its fishing fleet by up to 60%. This has sparked a major discord with such countries as; France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Ireland and Spain. Spain for instance has the largest fleet in Europe and over 65,000 people employed in the fishing industry and will take a much larger economic and employment loss than other countries in the EU such as, England which employs only 15,000 people in the fishing industry.

The reduction of fleets is a result of the mission to return fish stocks to sustainable levels by the year 2015 as set in the Earth Summit Meeting in Johannesburg. These countries are also worried about the massive job loss that will be suffered in their countries, but they will also be losing out on huge subsidies, such as Spain’s 380 million pounds per year which is provided by the European Union currently. The European union is also considering a new inspection agency with the power to police the territorial waters surrounding Europe.

Perhaps instead of merely scrapping their ships the EU could use them as patrol ships and thus find new work for the fisherman, who may otherwise lose their jobs. Additionally, who would know better where to look for problems on the seas than the people who have worked them. These fisherman would be equipped with the understanding of the equipment used in locating fish and would have the ability to recognize activities that were not following the Codes of Conduct for Sustainable Fisheries. Additionally, the vessels they would be traveling could act as a camouflage compared to official coast guard and monitoring vessels.

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China and Miscalculated Totals

China is the largest producer and consumer of fish in the world. In 1996 China claimed over twenty million tons more than Peru, its closest competitor that year. Scientists thought the Chinese were exaggerating their numbers, since they had no way to check through the Chinese government. However, with the recent induction of new satellite technologies scientists have discovered that the Chinese were actually underestimating their harvest numbers causing the problem of over fishing to take on new levels of urgency. The South China Sea was not previously considered exploited but has since been moved into this category.

Top 10 Principle Fish Producers in 2000 in Metric Tons

Mainland China
Peru   10,658,620
Japan   4,989,354
USA   4,745,332
Chile   4,300,160
Indonesia   4,140,045
Russian Federation   3,973,535
India   3,594,369
Thailand   2,953,579
Norway   2,703,415

Global pattern of fish production owes much to the activities of China which reports production in weight that accounts for 32% of the world total.” (World Review of Fisheries and Aqua culture) However, China’s fishing industry is now shifting to an Aqua culture based system which can also be referred to as fish farming. This means fish are raised in-land for human consumption and other uses. A series of problems has resulted from this development, but those issues exceed the scope of this case study.

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Piracy: IUU Fishing and Straddling High Sea Borders

The extreme prices paid by some countries such as Japan have led to an increase in pirate fishing. Pirate fishing is another term for illegal fishing and also encompasses poaching on certain species that are endangered such as the Patagonian tooth fish, also known as the Chilean Sea Bass. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) met in Santiago, Chile November 3-15, 2002 to discuss several issues including the Patagonia Tooth fish to determine a proper course for protection of the species. CITES has agreed to work with The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), who has been monitoring the illegal activities surrounding the Tooth Fish since 1993. The plan is to strengthen the system established by CCAMLR of monitoring using satellite positioning systems in addition to catch certifications and inspecting ships as they dock and implementing on board observers. The results of the meeting can be downloaded in PDF format from

One ton of tooth fish is selling between US 5,000 to 7,000, in Japan. It is said to bring in $10 U.S. per kilogram when arriving on the docks. "It is estimated that pirate tooth fish fishers have stolen $400 million worth of the resource from South African controlled waters alone."(Globe International.ORG) These poachers are dangerous and are usually armed. They have been known to kill local fisherman and to use their weapons against enforcement authorities. “If illegal and unregulated fishing continues at the current level, the population of Patagonian tooth fish will be so severely decimated that within the next two or three years the species will be commercially extinct. Some areas are already showing signs of this.” Warwick Parer, Australian Minister for Resources and Energy, July 22, 1998.

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Other instances of IUU fishing have resulted in transnational boat chases on the high seas spanning such distances from Australia to South Africa. “Illegal unregulated and unreported fishing can take place in all capture fisheries,whether within national jurisdiction or on the high seas. Efforts to conserve and manage fish stocks are undermined by IUU fishing and can lead to the collapse of a fishery or can seriously impair efforts to rebuild fish stocks that have already been depleted.”(Peter Manning, IUU Fishing,

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As an example of more violent outcomes from confrontations with Pirate fishers, a Russian coast guard authority lost his life and his wife and son were badly burnt when the Russian mafia threw lit bottles full of propane into his house. The Coast Guard officer had asked fishing vessels in the area to carry tacking devices for monitoring purposes.

"Fish-smuggling is big business for the Russian mob, and easy work thousands of miles from the gaze of Moscow. Japan wants cheap fish to sate its appetite for sushi, and Russians have no qualms about evading heavy export taxes. The speeding boats exchange machine-gun fire with anyone who gets in their way.

The coast guard estimates that $1bn (?00m) is lost in revenue every year through fish smuggling from the area of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the southernmost city on Sakhalin where the attack on Gamov took place."


Another area of concern is Straddling fisheries on the high seas. The High Seas consist of any area that extends beyond the 200-mile Economic Zones and are considered a universal shared resource. Straddling fish is a technique where a boat will set its nets 205 miles from the coast and wait for the fish to swim over the boundaries and into their net. It is the flag state of the fishing vessel, which is responsible for enforcing international fishing codes upon their ships. Thus fishing agencies have problems in monitoring fish quotas and ensuring against over fishing because of these straddling techniques. Ironically the fish caught by the straddling vessels will become the gross domestic product of the home country of the vessels that are straddling the resources, although, the fish originated in foreign waters.

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Satellites and their use as devices for Monitoring

The problem originally was how to monitor such a vast area as the oceans,considering over seventy percent of the Earth is water. Terms such as monitoring, control, and surveillance are employed when discussing this topic and generally referred to as MCS. The FAO under the auspices of the UN has been implementing training in developing countries to assist in their creation of MCS systems to combat problems such as over fishing and tracking IUU fishing. With the increased use of satellite technology the planet has now become completely accessible at all times and fisheries have a new resource in enforcing fishing codes. With just three satellites the entire planet can be monitored by one land based receiver. This greatly reduces the need for heavy manpower and can enable enforcement officials to better allocate their resources. One such way that satellite monitoring is becoming effective is through VMS systems (Vessel monitoring system). A resolution is also being passed in the UN and among the International Fishing Community that all sea going vessels are to be equipped with VMS technology. This equipment allows ships to be monitored anywhere they travel. This will allow countries to better protect their Exclusive Economic Zones by monitoring who is in their waters, whether they are permitted or not and will enable enforcement officials to locate and seek out offenders.

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The VMS technology will also create a safer and more convenient environment for the crews on the ships. They will have constant access to weather reports, news and sports programs and will have virtually all communications available uninterrupted i.e. fax, e-mail and Internet. This fact along with government subsidy should make the price for upgrading the equipment more manageable. Many countries have already begun pilot programs with this technology and have had successful results. VMS also allows for monitoring catch quota and relaying information in real time, which can have a benefit for the company with pricing figures and for the enforcement agencies to penalize anyone who exceeds the quota. Vessel monitoring systems work in similar manner to a global positioning system. However, with VMS, all the information about the ship including size, current speed and heading, current weight (to monitor catch)and Captain are transmitted every time a signal is received. The ability to monitor a boats current speed can allow authorities to be aware when a boat is at trawling speed; if the ship does not have the right to fish they will be apprehended.

“Satellite tracking is being actively used in the enforcement of certain fishing zones, for example under the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization. A Canadian firm IOSAT, developed an experimental application using Radarsat imagery to identify vessels operating in restricted fishing zones at trawling speeds.”(Herman 2001, from Remote Sensing in Support of multilateral Environmental Agreements: What have we learned from Pilot Applications? Alex de Sherbinin &Chandra Giri)

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The VMS system is also beneficial to the crew for communicating with their land office and can enable the crew to access the Internet,television and faxes. VMS is constant signal, which can eliminate the threat of the crew being lost at sea in a storm. One of the most established systems globally is the Argonet, which has over 4000 vessels registered in its system. “Argonet helps fishermen to comply with regulations concerning VMS and gives fishing authorities a tool to monitor national and foreign vessels fishing in their EEZ.”(Frequently Asked Questions from the Argos web site) The company named ARGOS is a project between France and United States, which has been operating since1978 and is designed to monitor the environment for study and protection. With all these benefits most countries are requiring their fleets to install the VMS systems as a safety measure for the fishermen and for the environment and national protection.

In addition, scientists have also developed technology specifically for monitoring the location and movement of fish. One such purpose is tracking Eddies. An eddie is nutrient rich area, which rises as much as a foot above seawater, where sea life thrives, and is easily tracked with satellites. (Andrew Bridges, Sea’s Surface Carries Life, Energy) Originally this information was useful to determine migration of fish populations and monitor the effects of global warming. Fishermen are also exploiting this satellite technology to locate and exploit fertile fishing areas. However, in turn, the enforcement agencies with access to the same information will know the areas fishermen will be heading and therefore can narrow the scope of their resources for target enforcement of fishery policies.

An additional idea proposed for restoring fish populations is to create Fishing Free zones (FFZ)which is an area that is closed to fishing. This is becoming a widely accepted idea for a solution to the problem of the worlds dwindling fish supply. Satellites will facilitate monitoring for FFZ’s for illegal fishing by tracking the speed at which boats are passing through the zone. Fishing Free Zones are already in use in Canada and New Zealand and have been met with positive results. The World Wildlife Foundation has been working with Fishermen in England to help create a measure to form fish free zones in the North Sea to preserve the Cod.

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3. Duration: 1978-Now

4. Location: Global

5. Actors: UNCLOS FAO Laws governing international fishing rights and conservation management efforts of the global seas begin with the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), and then funnel authority down through regional fishery bodies and end with individual nations. The UNCLOS established a framework to elucidate the legal aspects in international fishing rights and other areas concerning global use and protection of the ocean. The UNCLOS was established in 1982 and specifies national rights and guidelines for using the oceans. The convention was supplemented by two amendments; the first in 1994 redefined the original assessment for the use of international seabed mining. The second amendment in 1995 was the agreement on, The Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (FSA Fish Stock Agreement). As of August 31, 2001 one hundred and thirty six parties, including the European Community were bound by the Convention.

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The UNCLOS has established off shore zones to which the governing state has certain rights and obligations to uphold. The zones are as follows: 1) internal waters, which generally include estuaries, ports, rivers and bays up to certain sizes, 2) territorial sea, coastal state has full sovereignty and this area extends to 12 nautical miles, 3) Contiguous Zone, the area adjacent to the territorial sea and may not extend beyond 24 nautical miles, 4) Exclusive Economic Zone, the area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea which may not extend beyond 200 nautical miles the coastal state has rights over natural resources and other economic uses and jurisdiction over scientific research, marine environment protection and the establishing and using artificial islands, installations and structures, 5)and, the continental shelf, this area may extend beyond 200 nautical miles but cannot exceed 350 nautical miles from the baseline and the coastal state has rights over scientific research and natural resources. (Excerpted from Lee A.Kimball, International Ocean Governance)

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The coastal state has sovereignty over issues relating to all these zones and has the right to handle disputes according to its own law or if there is a governing regional body according to the term of the regional fishery organization. “Within the EEZ, the coastal state is not obliged to submit a dispute over its fisheries rights or their exercise to binding procedure.”(Lee A. Kimball, p.9,2001) However, if the state is a party to the UNCLOS it can call for international arbitration and enforcement of penalties. In addition, if the offending state is not a member it is still bound under International law,according to conservation rulings, to participate in arbitration. “Further, even when the offending state is not formally bound by a particular regional agreement, the LOS convention’compulsory, binding procedures could be invoked if the state were party to the LOS Convention to enforce the LOS Convention’s high seas duties to conserve and to cooperate in conservation efforts.” (Lee A. Kimball, p.9,2001)

Beyond the coastal zones established by the Convention begin International waters,which are referred to as the high seas and are considered a “ common heritage of mankind”. All states have the same rights and responsibilities on the high seas and it is through international cooperation that conservation efforts can be met. The UNCLOS has created a bilateral agreement concerning equal access to the resources in the high seas. “The 1994 Implementation Agreement, promotes equitable participation by developing nations in resource management decisions and in technical and financial benefits once deep sea bed mining becomes feasible.” (Lee A. Kimball, p.10, 2001) Also the Fish Stocks Agreement,established in 1995 under the auspices of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and supplemented into the UNCLOS, has led to the creation of a Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. The code applies to all fisheries worldwide. However, the Code has no enforcing policies and acts more as a management tool for regional fisheries. Plans of action such as this are referred to as “soft laws” because of their inability to work as a catalyst for change. “[International action plans] are often considered international legal instruments or “soft law”, with the implication that they have a compelling effect on national action. It may be more useful to consider them as management tools: they set out the“how-to's” when it comes to implementing international commitments.”(Lee A. Kimball, p.45, 2001)

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The FAO has been involved in monitoring fisheries since the 1940’s and it has recently reestablished itself as a prominent figure in formulating codes for fishery management especially in the international arena. Under the Code of Responsible fisheries the FAO sets out that on the high seas the flag state, the state to which the vessel belongs, is responsible for the actions of the vessel while in international waters and for enforcing international laws. The flag state is thus responsible for penalties accrued by its vessel. The problem faced by enforcement agencies is the ability to create a “genuine link” between the vessel and the state to which flag it is flying. The International Maritime Organization has been struggling to create a binding agreement and has since begun to collaborate with the FAO and the United Nations High Secretariat to formulate an agreement on this issue. It is imperative that an agreement is reached and rules are set so that the battle against illegal unregulated unreported fishing can become effective. “…In the context of encouraging the IMO to develop binding measures to insure that ships of all flag states meet international rules and standards, consistent with the LOS Convention requirement that a‘genuine link’ exist between the flag state and ships permitted to fly its flag, concern with illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing (IUU) ledCSD7 to encourage the IMO to cooperate with the FAO and the UN secretariat in considering the implications for effective flag state control over fishing vessels.” (Lee A. Kimball, p.27, 2001)

With IUU fishing as a focus in modern international maritime law the FAO has established a vehicle registration system for vessels operating in the high seas. “While under the 1993 Compliance Agreement FAO is to maintain a master file of national registers of vessels authorized to fish on the high seas, the High Seas Vessel Registration (HRSEG).” (Lee A. Kimball, p.30, 2001) Finally the FAO in 1999 under the International Plan of action has created a framework to restore sustainable fisheries by the year 2003 but no later then 2005. This has been reset once again, however, at the recent earth Summit meeting in Johannesburg, where the final date has been moved to2015.

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The problem with international law concerning fisheries is the dissemination of timely information and if all parties, globally, will share information concerning their activities. Monitoring of the oceans has become easier due to satellite technology as well as vessel tracking equipment and policies. Perhaps,as more parties join the UNCLOS and the technology for monitoring the seas improves a global uniform code for enforcing regulations pertaining to sustainable fishing yields will be tenable in the near future.

The Global Ocean Observing System, GOOS, is another international monitoring body that deals exclusively with ocean observing. GOOS is an initiative of the IOC and is also co-sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNNEP) and is assisted by the (FAO) the Food and Agriculture organization and the International Council for Science (ICSU). The primary objectives of GOOS are outlined under the web site Ocean Atlas, which is part of the United Nations information on-line. The main points are: to specify marine observational data needed to meet the needs of the world community of users of the oceanic environment, develop and implement an international co-coordinated strategy for the gathering, acquisition and exchange of these data, facilitate the development of products and services based on the data,and widen their application in the use and protection of the marine environment; facilitate the means by which less developed nations can increase their capacity to acquire and use marine data according to the GOOS framework;and co-ordinate the ongoing operations of the GOOS and ensure its integration within wider global observational and environmental management strategies.

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6. Type of Environmental Problem: Species Loss, Sea

7. Type of Habitat: Ocean

8. Act and Harm Sites: Exclusive Economic Zones and the Sale of Fishing Rights
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III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: Inter-State

10. Level of Conflict: Low

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities): SEVERAL. There are reported cases of poachers and pirate fishers attacking patrol ships. Most IUU fishers are thought to be armed and dangerous. One of the most severe murders occurred in Russia, where a local coast guard official and his family were killed by the Russian Mafia.
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IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

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13. Level of Strategic Interest: High

14. Outcome of Dispute: In progress, many organizations are searching for solutions. For a recent example look below: During the Summit for Sustainable development in Johannesburg an agreement was reached to restore fish population numbers by the year 2015. Following is an excerpt regarding several outcomes of the summit: Oceans and fisheries
Encourage the application by 2010 of the ecosystem approach for the sustainable development of the oceans.

On an urgent basis and where possible by 2015, maintain or restore depleted fish stocks to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield.

Put into effect the FAO international plans of action by the agreed dates:
- for the management of fishing capacity by 2005; and
- to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by 2004.

Develop and facilitate the use of diverse approaches and tools, including the ecosystem approach, the elimination of destructive fishing practices, the establishment of marine protected areas consistent with international law and based on scientific information, including representative networks by 2012 .

Establish by 2004 a regular process under the United Nations for global reporting and assessment of the state of the marine environment.

Eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and to over-capacity.

(This information is taken directly from the outcome notes for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg South Africa, August 26-Sept. 4, 2002)

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V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases  
TURBOT: Turbot Loss and Canada
Codwar: Cod Dispute Between Iceland & the UK
CANFISH: Canada and Spain Fish Dispute
MORSPAIN: Morocco, Spain and Fishing  
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16. Relevant Web sites and Literature

International Ocean Governance: Using International Law and Organizations to Manage Marine Resources Sustainability, Lee A Kimball, IUCN-The World Conservation Union, 2001

Remote Sensing in Support of Multilateral Environmental Agreements, A paper prepared for presentation at the open Meeting of the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Research Community, Rio de Janeiro, 6-8 October 2001, Prepared by Alex de Sherbinin and Chandra Giri