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Sustainable Fisheries

The main themes of the projects of the Fisheries Genetics team are:

  • The prevention of Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUU Fishing),
  • The traceability of fish and fish products,
  • The management of fish stocks,
  • Aquaculture

IUU Fishing

Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is estimated to be worth between €10bn and €20bn per year worldwide (Agnew et al., 2009) and poses a threat to the sustainable management of fisheries, not only through direct depletion of stocks, but also by undermining the competitiveness of legal fishing efforts. While a great deal of progress has been made in regulating commercial fisheries through monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) measures, and a range of technologies are utilized to identify infringements relating to individual vessels, gaps prevail in areas of catch identification (IUU fishing) and fraud throughout the food supply chain (product mislabelling).

IUU fishing describes fish caught in contravention to regulations concerning the species, geographic origin or age of the fish, the amount of fish caught, the timing and duration of fishing effort and the equipment used to catch fish. Authorities monitor many of these issues through the deployment of on-board fisheries inspectors and the use of remote sensing technology to track vessel movements. Nevertheless, current MCS systems have limitations and it is not always possible to identify or produce evidence of IUU fishing.

Reliable traceability schemes are required to counter IUU fishing and mislabelling. Mislabelling is typically used either to launder IUU fish into the legitimate marketplace or simply to defraud the industry and consumer in order to obtain a higher sale price.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO):

  • Illegal fishing refers to fishing activities
    • conducted by national or foreign vessels in waters under the jurisdiction of a State, without the permission of that State, or in contravention of its laws and regulations;
    • conducted by vessels flying the flag of States that are parties to a relevant regional fisheries management organization but operate in contravention of the conservation and management measures adopted by that organization and by which the States are bound, or relevant provisions of the applicable international law; or
    • in violation of national laws or international obligations, including those undertaken by cooperating States to a relevant regional fisheries management organization.
  • Unreported fishing refers to fishing activities
    • which have not been reported, or have been misreported, to the relevant national authority, in contravention of national laws and regulations; or
    • undertaken in the area of competence of a relevant regional fisheries management organization which have not been reported or have been misreported, in contravention of the reporting procedures of that organization.
  • Unregulated fishing refers to fishing activities
    • in the area of application of a relevant regional fisheries management organization that are conducted by vessels without nationality, or by those flying the flag of a State not party to that organization, or by a fishing entity, in a manner that is not consistent with or contravenes the conservation and management measures of that organization; or
    • in areas or for fish stocks in relation to which there are no applicable conservation or management measures and where such fishing activities are conducted in a manner inconsistent with State responsibilities for the conservation of living marine resources under international law.

FAO. (2002) Implementation of the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing. In FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries No.9. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.


Molecular Technologies can be used to fight IUU fishing and mislabelling by supporting traceability along the supply chain. Fish product mislabelling is used either to launder IUU fish into the legitimate marketplace or simply to defraud the industry and consumer in order to obtain a higher sale price. Mislabelling is also of growing concern to certification schemes (‘eco-labelling’) that rely on credible species and origin identification to support consumer demand for ‘sustainable’ products. False labelling, even of legally caught fish, destroys confidence in systems designed to reduce IUU fishing.

Methods for identifying fish and fish products are needed to support legislation and routine audits within the industry to act as enforcement tools for prosecuting illegal activities. The key requirement of any identification system in the fisheries sector is to answer three fundamental questions regarding a sample: What species is it? Where was it caught? and, in light of globally increasing aquaculture production: Is it of wild or farmed origin?.

The three principal questions of a traceability framework for fish and fish products: a) What species is it? b) Where was it caught? c) Is it of wild or farmed origin?

Each of these questions can be addressed using novel molecular methods developed for fisheries research. For example DNA-based identification techniques, particularly when forensic standards are applied, can provide valuable support to monitoring, but also to targeted investigations for prosecution purposes.

The Fisheries and Aquaculture team of the Joint Research Centre is actively pursuing the integration of genetics, genomics, chemistry and forensics to improve existing fisheries control and enforcement frameworks as well as traceability schemes. To this end it initiated a variety of projects, participates in international research endeavours, such as the FP7 project FishPopTrace and engages with national and international stakeholders, such as the FAO. It also published the JRC Reference Report "Deterring Illegal Activities in the Fisheries Sector" (2011).