The Global Initiative’s IUU Fishing Index provides insights into illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in East and Southern African countries.

In January 2020, a study highlighting an innovative methodology – using sensors attached to live albatrosses to monitor illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – revealed that up to a third of the 353 fishing boats the birds encountered fishing in the southwestern Indian Ocean between November 2018 and March 2019 had turned off their automatic identification systems.1 These systems are used by national authorities to inform maritime security efforts and to track vessel movements. As they are required to be switched on at all times, when vessels turn them off it is a likely sign of illegal activity.

Over the last decade, successful and sustainable exploitation of the ocean has become a development objective for many East African countries, with Mauritius (2013), the Seychelles (2018) and, most recently, Zanzibar (2020) launching ‘blue economy’ development strategies – yet along with these aspirations come anxieties that IUU fishing will undermine them.2 Although comprehensive information about the extent of IUU fishing in East and Southern Africa (ESA) as a whole is not available, it is likely that IUU fishing is a significant problem throughout the region.

Somalia has been recognized as an IUU fishing hotspot,3 as civil unrest has weakened its ability to control fishing in its waters, and there is evidence of illegal fishing in Tanzania4 and South Africa.5 The south-western Indian Ocean (of which ESA countries are coastal states) contains a wide variety of valuable fish resources, such as tuna and abalone, which incentivizes IUU fishing.

In the last few years, IUU fishing has become an increasingly prominent geopolitical issue in the region. In 2018, the European Commission cut funding for fisheries development in the Comoros and identified it ‘as a non-cooperating third country in fighting IUU fishing’.6 EU member states have also come under criticism – including Spain, which civil-society groups in the Seychelles alleged had underreported its tuna catch in the Indian Ocean, leading to EU sanctions in 2019.7

Many ESA countries rely heavily on the fisheries sector for its contribution to gross domestic product, export earnings, employment and food security. Failure to reduce IUU fishing in the region threatens these benefits, with potentially serious consequences for the countries concerned.

Reliable and comparable data

Indicators considered in the IUU Fishing Index

Figure 4 Indicators considered in the IUU Fishing Index

Recognizing its negative impacts on local, national and global development, eliminating IUU fishing by 2020 was included as a target in UN Sustainable Development Goal 14. A global IUU Fishing Index ( was launched in February 2019 to evaluate countries’ exposure and the quality of their response. The IUU Fishing Index was developed by Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management ( and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime ( The index addresses the lack of reliable and globally comparable estimates of IUU fishing that enable comparisons across countries and over time. The lack of such data has made it difficult to identify where interventions are most needed, and thus has hindered efforts to reduce and eliminate IUU fishing. The index allows countries to be comparatively ranked as well as individually assessed in terms of their exposure and responses to IUU fishing.

The index applies 40 indicators to 152 countries with a maritime coastline. Each country is scored on a scale of 1 (good) to 5 (poor), based on the weighted indicators. The scores do not establish how much IUU fishing there is in each country; rather, they measure the relative risk of IUU fishing incidence.

The 40 indicators are based on a combination of four state responsibilities and three indicator types, as shown in Figure 4.

The index thus provides the basis for comparing countries, world regions and ocean basins in terms of IUU prevalence, vulnerability and response. The index can help to identify the countries, regions and areas where action would be beneficial and would reduce levels of IUU fishing.

East and Southern Africa coastal country scores from the IUU Fishing Index compared to global average scores

Figure 5 East and Southern Africa coastal country scores from the IUU Fishing Index compared to global average scores

East and Southern African country scores

Three highest- and lowest-performing countries on the IUU Fishing Index in East and Southern Africa

Figure 6 Three highest- and lowest-performing countries on the IUU Fishing Index in East and Southern Africa

Index scores for 12 ESA coastal countries – Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, Somalia, South Africa and Tanzania – are slightly worse than average global scores for IUU fishing (Figure 5).

The higher (worse) scores are mostly driven by higher scores on prevalence and vulnerability. The region fares particularly poorly for the indicator groups of coastal prevalence and coastal vulnerability, due to continuing disputes over maritime boundaries, a large number of foreign vessels fishing in the waters of coastal states, and the large size of their exclusive economic zones (EEZs) (the area of sea from the coast to 200 nautical miles offshore), which makes it harder to monitor IUU fishing.

On the other hand, the ESA region scores slightly better than the global average on government response, as most countries in the region are either contracting parties or cooperating non-contracting parties to all relevant regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), and operate a national vessel monitoring system (VMS) and fisheries monitoring centre. RFMOs manage regionally shared fish stocks, typically highly migratory stocks, such as tuna, that move between EEZs; a VMS tracks fishing vessels using transponders, placed on the vessels, which emit location data that are read by satellites and transmitted to graphical displays on computer terminals in the fisheries monitoring centres.

Comoros, Somalia and Tanzania have the worst scores and rank poorly in global terms. Kenya, Mauritius, Namibia and the Seychelles are the best-performing countries in the ESA region, although these scores nevertheless still indicate a high risk of IUU fishing, and poor performance in terms of global comparisons (Figure 6).

Somalia has suffered from decades of civil war and a weak central government that has not been able to control or police its coastal waters. Unsurprisingly, it performs poorly in most indicator groups, with a particularly below-average score for government response – 2.82, compared to the regional average of 2.44 (Figure 7). The government, for example, has not provided data on its vessels to the FAO Global Record of fishing vessels, a repository of government-certified information intended to combat IUU fishing. It does not comply with all RFMO flag and port state responsibilities, and it has not ratified the UN Fish Stocks Agreement.

On the other hand, the Seychelles performs very well on most response indicators, and is the best-performing country in the region overall. Its high response score derives from the fact the country has signed and accepted most relevant international fishing agreements, has developed a national plan of action to combat IUU fishing, tracks its fishing vessels using a VMS, and has supplied data on its vessels to the FAO Global Record.

Yet while the Seychelles has good scores for government response, it has the second worst scores in the region for prevalence, and the third worst for vulnerability. The poor prevalence score is driven by the assessment of IUU fishing levels by the people involved in monitoring, control and surveillance, and by the number of vessels on the lists of IUU vessels maintained by RFMOs, suggesting that vessels operating under the country’s flag are involved in IUU fishing. The Seychelles is also vulnerable to IUU fishing because of its large EEZ and the large number of foreign vessels fishing in its waters and landing fish into its ports (Figure 8).

IUU Fishing Index scores for Somalia compared to average scores for East and Southern Africa

Figure 7 IUU Fishing Index scores for Somalia compared to average scores for East and Southern Africa

IUU Fishing Index scores for Seychelles compared to average scores for East and Southern Africa

Figure 8 IUU Fishing Index scores for Seychelles compared to average scores for East and Southern Africa

The way forward

The index clearly shows that many countries in the ESA region are at above-average risk of IUU fishing. There are only a limited number of actions that can be taken to mitigate vulnerability to IUU fishing. Countries would not want to reduce the size of their EEZs, and resolving maritime boundaries will take a long time. But several actions can be taken by countries in the ESA region to improve responses to IUU:

While some of the actions would have cost implications, the costs may not be significant, and the actions are relatively easy to achieve if the political will is there.


  1. Henri Weimerskirch, et al, Ocean sentinel albatrosses locate illegal vessels and provide the first estimate of the extent of non-declared fishing, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 2020, 201915499; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1915499117. For a comprehensive definition of IUU fishing, see International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization, 2018,

  2. Flavie Havas, How small islands can harness the ocean economy, Devex, 24 July 2019,; Zanzibar in plans to develop its fishing sector, The East African, 21 January 2020,

  3. SM Glaser, et al, Securing Somali Fisheries, Denver, CO: One Earth Future Foundation, 2015,

  4. Sea Shepherd and the Government of Tanzania are jointly running Operation Jodhari to combat IUU. See

  5. É Plagányi, D Butterworth and M Burgener, Illegal and unreported fishing on abalone – quantifying the extent using a fully integrated assessment model, Fisheries Research, 107 (2011), 221–232. 

  6. European Union, Council Decision 2018/757 of 14 May 2018 denouncing the Partnership Agreement in the fisheries sector between the European Community and the Union of the Comoros,

  7. Matilde Mereghetti, EU finds Spain guilty of excess tuna catch in Indian Ocean, Undercurrent News, 29 October 2019,