Ms. Daniela Tello Toral

Challenges in marine fisheries in Latin America and the Caribbean: Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing practices leads to overfishing



This paper presents an overview of marine fisheries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), excluding overseas territories. Despite the difference between small and large-scale fisheries, LAC fisheries face similar challenges. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing leads to overfishing and affects the possibility of assessing and managing marine resources. Analysis of marine catch data from the FishStatJ database of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) allows identifying LAC fisheries’ trends and development from 1950 to 2018. Even though official records show fluctuations, fisheries still show ‘productivity.’ Nevertheless, the decline of fish stocks is a global trend masked by the expansion of fisheries grounds, higher fishing effort, and lack of data. Therefore, to complement the marine fisheries’ information in LAC countries, examples (literature review) were identified, showing that some fisheries sites are overexploited. It concludes by highlighting the importance of appropriated assessment and monitoring of fisheries for sustainable development.

Keywords: Marine fisheries, Overfishing, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated



Characteristics of Latin American marine fisheries

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC, defined as the region encompassing South America, Central America, and the Caribbean) possess a wide variety of habitats and marine biodiversity (Villasante and Österblom, 2015; Salas, Barragán-Paladines and Chuenpagdee, 2019). In this region, the most biodiverse countries in the world provide a range of ecosystem services of significant economic and social value (de Oliveira Leis et al., 2019). Therefore, it is considered the most important region for world fish production (Ibarra, Reid and Thorpe, 2000). The coastal regions of the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Caribbean contain various demersal, pelagic, and benthic fisheries (de Oliveira Leis et al., 2019). These regions contribute approximately one-fifth of world marine fish catch, providing numerous benefits to people, including food security, employment, and income (Villasante and Österblom, 2015). Nevertheless, LAC marine ecosystems have undergone significant transformation in the last decades. Rapid human population growth, rising incomes, and higher demand have increased pressure on LAC fisheries, where fish consumption and production rates have increased compared to other regions (FAO, 2020c).

Evidence of Overfishing in Latin America

The long-term sustainability of fisheries is threatened due to the high demand for this limited resource. Overfishing occurs when the catch of target species exceeds the capacity for replacement by reproduction and growth, leading to a decline in catches and possible collapse of stocks. Consequently, the reduction of stocks leads to an increased fish effort, destructive fishing practices, and bycatch due to low selectivity while fishing for target species. It can lead to fishing down the food web by depleting populations of large predators and catching lower trophic groups of minor commercial importance or undersized individuals before reaching maturity (Salas, Barragán-Paladines and Chuenpagdee, 2019). Although landings tend to increase, the bulk of the catch is considered as trash or of minor commercial importance, affecting fisheries’ health by preventing a population from producing sustainable yield (Villasante and Österblom, 2015). On a regional scale, 30% of fish stocks are moderately to fully exploited, and 12% are fully exploited to overexploited (Salas, 2019). Although globally marine fish catch increased 8 million tons from 2010 to 2018, the state of fisheries might be masked by improved technology and geographic expansion of fishing grounds (Pauly et al., 2002; State of the Tropics, 2020). To avoid ecological and socioeconomic consequences, diverse stakeholders, fisheries, scientists, environmental non-governmental organizations, national administrations, among others, should determine the real status of fisheries (Villasante and Österblom, 2015). Differentiating fishing activities and acknowledging illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing practices (IUU) is essential to estimate real catches and landings.

Assessment of fisheries both small-scale and industrial in LAC countries:

Industrial fisheries

The industrialization of fishing spread during the 1950s-1970s (Carvalho, Edwards-Jones and Isidro, 2011). The geographical expansion of industrial fisheries was from the northern to the southern hemisphere (de la Puente and de la Lama, 2019). Previously, only foreign industrial fleets were fishing in LAC countries, but then the national industry started to gradually join the global production (Pérez and Lluch-Cota, 2010). To develop the economy, national governments decided to support and incentivize large-scale operations for commercial purposes contrary to small-scale fisheries, which were considered inefficient and thought to disappear if they did not modernize. The investment in industrial fisheries was high to increase species’ catch and profitability from international markets. The implementation of new technology advances facilitated the detection and extraction of resources; however, the higher capacity of vessels and gear used during fish trips in deeper offshore waters resulted in rapid fish abundance changes. By 1990, numerous fisheries’ collapse was identified, which jeopardized the livelihoods of artisanal fisheries (Carlson et al., 2018).

Small scale fisheries

Small-scale fishing (SSF) operations contribute almost half of the economic value of marine catch worldwide (de Oliveira Leis et al., 2019). In the LAC region, SSF has a strong influence on the economy as it has developed a variety of techniques for generations. The diversity of SSF is linked with local fishers’ identity, history, and culture (Carvalho, Edwards-Jones and Isidro, 2011). These fisheries have remained since pre-colonization periods and even flourished in the 1970s in LAC countries (Canty et al., 2019)(de Oliveira Leis et al., 2019). SSF play an essential role as they benefit more than 2 million people either directly or indirectly. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 90% of all motorized fishing vessels in the LAC region were small-scale, producing more than 70% of the total marine catch (de Oliveira Leis et al., 2019). In some countries, especially in developing counties, SSF provides the majority of the total national catch, even more than large-scale fisheries (Cohen et al., 2019; de Oliveira Leis et al., 2019) and the landings from SSF in the region are mainly used for direct consumption with some supply to the international demand (Salas et al., 2007). Although local fishing communities dedicated to SSF are essential, they have been marginally characterized by inequality and social exclusion (Gasalla and de Castro, 2016). For example, most subsidies go to large scale fisheries, SSF participation is low during the decision making, competition with tourism, conservation, and offshore energy sector threatens communities that rely on fisheries for food and livelihoods (de Oliveira Leis et al., 2019).

Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing undermines management

Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is a global problem of great concern in marine fisheries where small-scale and industrial fisheries coexist. IUU fish landings add more than 26 million tons a year to the global catch. Therefore, IUU fishing is linked to overfishing and threatens the security of fisheries resources for the future (Song et al., 2020). This issue is placed on the global agenda because it reduces opportunities for LAC countries’ social and economic developments. The application of international instruments in the last decades to combat IUU fishing are: 2001 International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate IUU (to combat IUU fishing activities); 2009 Port State Measures Agreement (to prevent the access of IUU fishing vessels and illegally caught into the markets); 2015 Voluntary Guidelines on Flag State Performance (to control fishing vessels and ensure compliance with international duties) and 2017 Voluntary Guidelines for Catch Documentation Schemes (to provide better traceability and to stop illegal catches entering into the global supply chain) (Wang, 2019; FAO, 2020a)

Illegal Fishing

Illegal fishing means fishing within a declared exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without the state’s permission or violating any national laws and international obligations on the high seas. National and foreign vessels participating in illegal fishing activities target locations where regulations and enforcement are the weakest (State of the Tropics, 2020). Foreign vessels, especially from China, pressure LAC countries the most as the LAC region depends economically on China, so it is difficult to raise objections against those operating illegal fishing. Nevertheless, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina, among others, have reported Chinese fleet expansion in their EEZ. These activities generate significant economic losses for the LAC countries, directly from lost catches and indirectly from habitat degradation and loss of marine species (Yamazaki, Hoshino and Resosudarmo, 2015). Consequently, national vessels compete with foreign fleets by increasing their capacity and fishing effort, which they rely on for their livelihoods (Wang, 2019).

Unreported Fishing

In many fisheries, the data of both industrial and small-scale catches are commonly unreported or misreported to the national authority or the Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO), despite their considerable fishing effort (FAO, 2020a). This problem results in overfishing as the lack of data leads to an inaccurate assessment of fish populations’ status. Fisheries management depends on stock assessment and relies on accurate records of catches for monitoring (Siegfried et al., 2016). In the industrial fisheries, data is needed to identify the total allowable catch, which is one of the most common fisheries management tools (Quinn et al., 2010). However, industrial fisheries fail to report the discards of bycatch, leading to poor quantitative estimates for the whole fishery. In the case of SSF, bycatch has been underestimated and poorly quantified. Although reporting has occurred since 2001, there are still inconsistences in the collection of data in many smaller fishing communities in more remote locations (Canty et al., 2019). For this reason, the reconstruction of data is used when there is unreliable data (Rudd and Branch, 2017). There are several reasons for unreported data such as profit-driven actions and the fact that the concept of small-scale is not agreed upon. There is no clear distinction made between SSF and large-scale commercial based fisheries on technical and physical features, therefore, the status of the world’s fisheries may be worse than currently perceived given that a large fraction of catches has been missing from national fisheries catch estimates and illegal activities are not reported in many countries of the world (Canty et al., 2019).

Unregulated Fishing

Unregulated fishing occurs when the practices are carried out by unregistered vessels or vessels flying flags of nations which are not part of the RFMO (FAO, 2020a). Unregulated fishing also occurs in areas or for fish stocks where there are no applicable laws or there are inconsistences with conservation and management measures (Wang, 2019). Large-scale unregulated vessels have a connection with illegal activities, illicit fishing, organized crime such as forced labor, and drug trafficking. The case of small-scale fisheries remains understudied and sometimes ignored; thus, a large number of small-scale vessels tend to be unregistered and its size and dimensions unregulated (de la Puente et al., 2020). In unregulated fisheries with no entry restriction, the establishment of a marine protected area (MPA) can help protect different marine species and associated habitats. Likewise, MPAs provide ecological and economic benefits. For example, the spillover effect from MPAs to adjacent fished areas can help rebuild overfished stocks and fishers can diversify in tourism activities reducing fishing pressure. The number and extent of protected areas has increased, with the majority of LAC countries having established MPAs. In the region there are more than 756 MPAs, but it does not indicate effectiveness of management. Monitoring of MPAs should occur as illegal and unreported fishing can overlap (Guarderas, Hacker and Lubchenco, 2008).



Study Site

The LAC region includes Latin America and Caribbean countries (Figure 1). This region is surrounded by the Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean. It also encompasses ten Large Marine Ecosystems including the California Current, Gulf of California, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Central American, Caribbean Sea, Humboldt Current, Patagonian Shelf, South Brazil Shelf, East Brazil Shelf, and North Brazil Shelf. This geography results in very diverse coastal and marine ecosystems; thus, a wide range of fisheries have been exploited (de Oliveira Leis et al., 2019).

Figure.1 LAC countries. QGIS

Data Source

The database was extracted from FishStatJ software of the FAO of the United Nations. In the workspace FAO Regional capture fisheries statistics 2020, the file Global capture production addresses marine fisheries from 1950 to 2018. In the analysis, freshwater catches and aquatic plants were excluded. The marine wild capture fisheries results show the trend of marine fish catch in terms of live weight from 1950 to 2018 in LAC countries. The data includes 33 different countries: 13 in the Caribbean, 8 in Central America including Mexico, and 12 in South America. The trends over the years show different variations but this cannot be attributed only to overfishing as it can be related to other human or natural threats that affect the fisheries such as seasonal patterns, fish population’s natural fluctuation among others. Therefore, to complete the analysis, a literature review of peer-reviewed and gray publications on topics related to overfishing was conducted. In the examples it was possible to see how overfishing is linked to IUU fishing. The examples of case studies are beneficial to help fill data and knowledge gaps, to have an idea of IUU fishing sites, and to identify different practices to solve the problems.


Figure 2. Total landings trends in LAC countries from 1950 to 2018. Extracted from FishStatJ software. (FAO, 2020b).

Catch trends shown indicate important fluctuations from 1950 to 2018 in LAC countries. Wild marine fisheries catch increased from approximately 500 thousand tons in 1950 to 13 million tons in 2018 (Figure 2). First landings increased in the 1960s and by the 1970s the catch was up to 15 million tons. Soon after, landings dropped sharply but gradually started increasing until reaching the highest peak ever registered in Latin America with over 23 million in 1994. Nevertheless, from 1994 to 1998 it decreased 49%. In the 2000s, the catches increased to approximately 19 million tons and then decreased 5 million tons in 2003. From 2004 to 2013 catches it fluctuates from 18 million to 11 million. In 2016, 9 million tons were reported and in 2018, 13 million tons were reported. Peru is the main contributor in the LAC region, representing approximately 49% of total landings. After Peru, the top fisheries are Chile, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador. Therefore, the South America subregion reports more than 88% of the landings, largely explaining the changes on landings in LAC region. The major catch is represented by pelagic species in the Pacific Ocean, such as Peruvian anchovy, South America pilchard, Chilean jack mackerel and Araucanian herring (Ibarra, Reid and Thorpe, 2000). The upwelling Humboldt currently sustains this large population of fish, showing sharp rises in 1970,1994, and 2000 (Grafton et al., 2010), but major declines due to fluctuations related to changes in the temperature of sea water known as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Overfishing by industrial fleets using purse seine and trawl nets in Peru and Chile contributes to the stock decline (Muller, Oyanedel and Monteferri, 2019). Industrial fishing represents most of the landings in both countries and most of their catches go to the production of fishmeal and fish oil exports.  On the other hand, the Caribbean subregion has the smallest landings. Their biological productivity is relatively low but countries including Dominican Republic, Bahamas, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago receive important foreign exchange from their catches. Most of the landings come from coastal fisheries; however, Peru and Chile provide less than 10% of catches from coastal fisheries. Regarding the Central American subregion, they highly depend on the coastal fisheries on the Pacific and the Caribbean (Salas et al., 2007). Mexico, as part of this subregion contributes 77% of marine catches subregion, thus catches appear to be higher on the Pacific and, as mentioned before, more profitable in the Caribbean with species like conch, lobster and shrimp (FAO, 2011).

Table 1. Overexploited small-scale fisheries 




Examples of overfishing and IUU practices


El Salvador,

Gulf of Fonseca

Shrimp (Loliolopsis diomedeae), Pargos (Pagrus pagrus), Corvina (Pachyurus bonariensis)

Artisanal fisheries in the Gulf of Fonseca have been expanding since 1990. As the gulf is open access, overexploitation of the fish and shrimp species have reduced more than 50% of the production between 2002 and 2011. In addition, Illegal fishing has also threatened the stocks because Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador share the fishing ground.

(Campbell, 2015)


Spiny lobster (Panulirus argus), Queen conch (Lobatus gigas),

Honduras is vulnerable to illegal fishing because it shares EEZ borders with numerous countries. Since 1950-2010 the Caribbean coast has unreported catches of the spiny lobster and queen conch.  The differences in reported catches vary approximately ten times. Therefore, it turned to a production decline. Also, in El Salvador, spiny lobster declined about 67% between 2002 and 2011.

(Canty et al., 2019)

Mexico, Baja California Sur

Pen-shell scallops (Atrina maura), (Atrina tuberculosa) and (Pinna rugosa).

Open access to the scallop’s fisheries, which are among the highest valued small-scale catch in the region, has resulted in overexploitation and the fisheries collapse in 2008.  The loss of an essential income source leads to the enforcement of regulations to control illegal harvest and secure property rights. (Palacios-Abrantes et al., 2018)

(Palacios-Abrantes et al., 2018)


Bonefish (Albula vulpes), Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus), Permit (Trachinotus falcatus),

Southern Belize has shown a decline in fish stocks due to illegal foreign commercial fishers from neighboring countries. Therefore, Guatemala and Honduras pressure marine resources and challenge fisheries management. Although there are protected areas, monitoring is insufficient. On the other hand, outside protected areas with no regulations, tourism, pollution, and overfishing threaten the stocks.

(Steinberg, 2015)

Ecuador, Galápagos

Sea cucumber (Isostichopus fuscus)

Sea cucumber, considered the most important fishery in the Galapagos, collapsed in the 2000s due to overfishing. They were commercially exploited since 1998 to supply the Asian Market; however, this fishery was unregulated, and more than 3000 tons were caught illegally. After the Marine Reserve was implemented, the management and bans were not efficient enough to recover this species. It resembles Mexico, Panama and mainland Ecuador that commercially overexploited this fishery.

(Ramírez-González et al., 2020)


White shrimp (Penaeus occidentalis) and Mangrove Cockle (Anadara tuberculosa)

White shrimp production in the 1980s increased due to gillnets’ introduction.  Fishers used illegal nets with smaller mesh, which are not allowed in the regulation. Mangrove cockles stocks decline due to pressure on the resource and mangrove habitat. Additionally, the production is unreported; the cockles harvested in Colombia and later sold in Ecuadorian and Peruvian markets are neither accounted for in fishery landings statistics nor export registers of Colombia.

(Castellanos-Galindo and Padilla, 2019)

The understanding of past and present resource exploitation is fundamental to ensure the sustainable use of fisheries. However, the trends shown in Figure 2 lack  information, which affects fisheries management’s effectiveness (FAO, 2011). Management is important to sustainable harvest resources; thus, the marine catch should be low enough to allow the natural process of birth and growth to replace what is harvested. However, IUU fishing takes up a significant number of catches. As this activity is secretive and clandestine, the data is inaccurate and not included in the fisheries assessment (Grafton et al., 2010). Although the concept of IUU fishing first emerged as a large-scale fisheries problem in the high seas, it is now used to explain the main drivers of depletion of stocks regardless of social or ecological context (Song et al., 2020).This is especially relevant in the LAC region context because the industrial and small-scale fisheries co-exist, and they are constantly competing for the same marine resource and the same maritime space (Carvalho, Edwards-Jones and Isidro, 2011). Both fisheries are vulnerable to a decline in the stocks; however, the catches’ gaps occur mainly in SSF (Grafton, 2010). SSF tends to be unregulated as there are not well define concepts distinct from large-scale; also, landings sites are located in remote sites. Therefore, SSF large catches are not available in official records, or they have just recently been collected, for example in Honduras which started recording in 2001 (Canty et al., 2019). In Central America, the status of SSF is much less studied than in the Caribbean or South America (Campbell, 2015). Nevertheless, SSF is crucial, especially in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize, where artisanal fisheries add significant economic value (Canty et al., 2019). Also, SSF are an essential part of coastal communities in the LAC region, where more than 2 million people depend on marine resources for their well-being and food security (Salas et al., 2007). Consequently, there is a great need to improve data collection and determine the status of fisheries. Still, the absence of scientific research due to limited financial support and insufficient technical capacity remains a problem (FAO, 2011).

In table 1, some examples of overfishing linked to IUU fishing are shown. Some fisheries’ current status indicates that the scenario might be worse than currently perceived and exposed in the official national statistics. Most resources are considered to be fully exploited or overexploited (FAO, 2011).  As a result, overfishing remains the greatest threat to marine resources. Although the examples are context-specific, they provide useful insights for the region. For example, there is a high political will in the region to act against IUU fishing and countries participate and commit to international agreements (Grafton et al., 2010). However, research indicates that these actions did not prevent fish stocks’ declines in some important fish grounds because enforcement is inadequate or non-existent. Likewise, corruption in LAC countries is high, and political interest influences decisions more than what is recommended from a scientific and technical perspective (de la Puente et al., 2020). In cases of poor trust in governing authorities, a new governance approach known as the bottom-up approach is suggested, generally drafted in an inclusive or participatory manner that combines local and scientific knowledge in the decisions.


In conclusion, the diverse marine ecosystem in LAC region allows high marine catch, however, in the long-term, unsuitable exploitation could threaten small and large-scale fisheries. Lack of necessary data and poor research interfere with a reliable estimation of stocks. The assessment of stocks is key for policy formulation and effective management and the enforcement of these policies will indicate how effective the measures is at stopping overexploitation.



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