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Looking for a Win on International Cooperation? Australia Can Lead on Combatting IUU Fishing

24 May 2023
By Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA, Dr Tony Press and Dr Michael Fabinyi
Illegal fishing. Cocos Island has Marine Protected Areas in order to defend one of the Pacific Ocean’s most vibrant marine life habitats. Source: The TerraMar Project/

Australia has an opportunity to build on its strong diplomatic foundations on regional and international issues. Taking the lead to address illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is one international public good Australia can provide and be proud of. 

A year on from the election of the Albanese Government, Australians would be aware of how much effort has been put into Australia’s ties with the US and the region, including the AUKUS partnership and an extensive program of building links with Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

There has been less attention paid to the traditional third pillar of ALP foreign policy, which relates to international cooperation. The ALP National Platform speaks of Australia’s role as a “responsible international citizen” in promoting a “rules-based, multilateral system” and notes that many contemporary problems can only be effectively addressed through international cooperation.

Past ALP foreign ministers have used formulations like “good international citizenship” and “creative middle power diplomacy.” Foreign Minister Penny Wong, meanwhile, has spoken of constructive internationalism, which she defines as working with other countries to achieve common benefit where there are “interests which cannot be effectively pursued without international co-operation.”

One area where Australia could show constructive international leadership is in combatting illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU fishing). This a perfect example of an international issue that requires a collective response.

It is also an area where Australia can be a global leader. A recent example of what is possible is the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions Treaty, an Australian-backed treaty to conserve the world’s high seas and ensure they are used sustainably.

Australia is well-placed to lead in international efforts to combat, deter, and prevent IUU fishing. It has much to offer in sustainable fisheries management, both regionally and globally, including in maritime domain awareness; monitoring, control, and surveillance; fisheries science; and capacity-building. It is internationally recognised as a leader in fisheries compliance management.

In areas including maritime protection areas, maritime surveillance, and enforcement and sustainable returns from the use of fisheries resources, Australia has insight into what works and what doesn’t. This means it is in an excellent position to provide leadership in this area, with sophisticated information, skills, and capacity-building knowledge to support countries in the region.

Second, Australia has led significant and successful efforts to combat IUU fishing in the past, such as in the fight against toothfish pirates in the Southern Ocean. With renewed focus, Australia can build upon this strong record in promoting sustainable fisheries cooperation.

A positive example of what can be achieved when Australia is a strong partner in regional fishing management organisations is the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), established by an international convention in 1982 to conserve Antarctic marine life. Australia was significantly involved in negotiating the convention, and hosts the secretariat and annual meeting of the Commission in Hobart. Australia is leading efforts in CCAMLR to establish marine protected areas in the Antarctic where the world’s largest marine protected area has been established in the Ross Sea. CCAMLR monitors compliance with conservation measures to ensure fishing is sustainable and maintains strong market controls to prevent trade in IUU fish.

Australia doesn’t have the same fishing industry vested interests that many other countries have. This means Australia can support advocacy positions that other countries cannot.

Looking ahead, climate change – and the conflict associated with it – will impact the abundance and distribution of fisheries, with the most significant declines predicted in the equatorial zone. This zone is home to millions of people whose livelihoods are dependent on seafood. Understanding the effects of ocean heating is crucial for the future of the world’s fisheries, as well as for conservation strategies to protect marine ecosystems. With declining fish stocks pushing fishing fleets into different areas, including Australian waters, Australia must ensure it is prepared.

New challenges mean Australia needs to reset how it looks at IUU fishing, requiring strong cooperation and engagement with partners. Australia must actively build and support coalitions through bilateral and multilateral engagements and organisations. As a country with the world’s third largest exclusive economic zone, sitting across the Pacific, Southern, and Indian Oceans, Australia participates in key regional fisheries management organisations.

A recent report by the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue looks at how Australia can deepen and broaden its partnerships in combatting IUU fishing. Building on a strong record of delivering capacity building with partners across Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Australia can build its global leadership through strengthened engagement in bilateral and multilateral cooperation across the Indo-Pacific region. It should retain its existing focus on Southern Ocean fisheries, continue to deepen engagement in the Pacific, while also remaining engaged in Southeast Asia. It can also broaden its partnerships into the Indian Ocean, where there is scope for increased engagement.

Combatting IUU fishing is an ideal area for leadership. It is about supporting the integrity of the international legal framework and the rules-based international order. The last Foreign Policy White Paper highlighted the difficult and contested world Australia is operating in, where the “continuing effective management of our own fisheries will depend on the health and sustainability of ecosystems in the wider region.”

Fisheries management is a whole-of-government issue, linking security, trade, foreign policy, and development. For example, development cooperation assistance must be integrated within Australia’s responses to address some of the root causes of IUU fishing, including sustainability, climate change, economic livelihoods, and education. It requires coordination across all the tools of statecraft.

Now is the time for Australia to take the opportunity to refresh and renew efforts to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. In doing so, the government can draw on Labor’s tradition of multilateralism and regionalism: forging groupings, associations and partnerships to act in the common good.

Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA is Executive Director of the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D). Dr Tony Press FAIIA is Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania. Dr Michael Fabinyi is Associate Professor in the Climate, Society and Environment Research Centre at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

This draws upon AP4D’s report What does it look like for Australia to be an Effective Partner in Combatting Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing funded by the Australian Civil-Military Centre. AP4D thanks all those involved in consultations.