Destructive Fishing – part I: Defining Destructive Fisheries in a Rounded Manner

By Senia FEBRICA, Warwick SAUER, Alexander WINKLER, Joseph AGGREY-FYNN, Bernadette SNOW and Alana Malinde S.N. LANCASTER

This two-part Blog Post provides an overview of the One Ocean Hub’s contribution to the Cambridge Conservation Initiative’s “Defining Destructive Fishing”  Project Survey, which involves the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), Fauna & Flora International, the University of Cambridge, BirdLife International and Brunel University. The Survey is aimed at drawing perspectives from across academia, the conservation sector, fisheries management, the seafood industry, indigenous, traditional and community fishery representative bodies, civil society and decision-makers, to gain a clearer idea of where, and why, there is consensus or disagreement concerning destructive fishing. Part I will focus on the lack of definition and need to describe destructive fishing practices; Part II will focus on the determinants of destructive fishing, key observations by the One Ocean Hub, and the Hub’s contributions to a workable definition, and to addressing the issue of destructive fishing in our activities (Potts et al Winkler, 2020; Sowman 2021; Ameyaw, 2021; FAO-Hub Regional Workshop on SSF, April 2021; World Oceans Week, June 2021; FAO-Hub Workshop on SSF in Namibia in June 2021; the Inaugural UN Summer/Winter School on Human Rights and the Environment in June 2021;).

Destructive Fishing Defined?

Destructive fishing is a broad term encompassing practices or measures which may, or may not, contravene international and regional agreements, policies, regulatory regimes, conservation strategies and management measures by relevant authorities (e.g., government, regional fisheries management organisations, and international bodies). The concept encapsulates a diverse range of fishing activities, including the removal of important species which ecosystems rely upon, as well as the indiscriminate devastation of species, and destruction of marine habitats and other marine resources. However, while destructive fishing is recognised as prejudicial to sustainable fishing, and central to the achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 ‘Life Below Water’, the term remains vague, making it difficult to track and quantify progress  towards mitigating it (Willer et. al., 2021, pre-print). As Willer et al. explain,

there is a clear lack of a consensus definition for “destructive fishing”, with only [six] academic articles to date providing a definition, and none of these [definitions match]. There is also a mismatch between regions where academia and policy identify fishing practices as “destructive” and the regions in which the media reports it … Further, while the literature characterises destructive fishing across ecological, economic, and social impacts, considerably more attention [is] given to the ecological impacts.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), which has done an admirable job in other related contemporary fisheries management issues, has also struggled to sufficiently distinguish the concept of ‘destructive fishing practices’ from the larger body of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. This is not for the lack of trying, as there exist previous collaborations between FAO, UNEP and the CBD on the topic.  Within this context – and therefore directly related to the objective of CCI’s Project and this Blog Post – Willer et. al. concludes:

[there is need for] further exploration around the definition and scope of [the concept of destructive fishing] [b]y assembling a culturally and sectorally balanced pool of expert views, future research plans to use an iterative, anonymised approach to constructively address the conceptual vagueness and contention around [the] term.

Before weighing in on the discourse on “destructive fishing,” it is first appropriate to survey the breath of the practice, through its past, present, as well as its persistent and potential drivers.

Destructive Fishing Described

Destructive fishing activities, as with illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing practices, are common and diverse in small-scale fisheries (Widjaja, Long, Wirajuda, et al., 2019), but now feature equally in large-scale and recreational fisheries. Destructive measures may occur through the use of fishing gear (e.g. the use of bottom trawling equipment, fine mesh fishing nets, long lines, purse seines, aggregation devices, dredges, spears, traps, weirs, etc.) or non-fishing gear (e.g. dynamite or other explosive and incendiary compounds, poisons or other chemicals). The common thread running through these practices is their devastating impact on marine and coastal ecosystems including mangroves, coral reefs and sea-grasses and their impact species through the death capture of juvenile and immature fish, invertebrates, etc. (as bycatch), among others. In addition to these impacts to the marine environments and their species, destructive practices related to incendiary methods also take a direct toll on fishers, as many are left maimed – or dead – when deploying these often-home-made devices. For example, an investigative report by the New York Times into dynamite fishing in the Philippines notes that

… [a] poorly made bomb or a distracted fisherman could prove fatal … [fisher]men … have been left blind, deaf, or maimed, and death has become part of the fishermen’s lore …

This seeming acceptance of an explicit downside to a thoroughly destructive practice confirms the observations of Willer et. al., and signals the need to increase the focus on the social and human rights, as well as the occupational safety of small-scale fishers, who are already vulnerable.                        

The increasing recognition of the deleterious effects of destructive fisheries has led to the evolution of various legal, policy and management tools and measures at national, regional, and international levels to combat the broad spectrum of its practices. This suite of largely ecological measures, include those aimed at general marine management (e.g., maritime and ocean governance, compliance with MEAs such as the 1971 CITES, etc.); marine conservation (e.g., MPAs, MMAs and targeted species protection); and those specific to fisheries management (e.g. fishing techniques, fishery zones, recreational fishing, and licencing of techniques/equipment). In addition, many countries also participate in regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) and have their own fish stocks management plans to ensure stocks are maintained at sustainable levels. However, the marine species covered, and capacities for implementing, monitoring, and enforcing these plans are not homogenous and, in many cases, insufficient. (UNCTAD, 2016)                                   

Examples of legal, policy and management responses in practice include:


The Caribbean




The gears and practices listed above are recognised as highly destructive in nature but continue to be used and remain unmonitored and often unregulated today. Against this background, the Hub’s research and practice has identified several determinants and drivers of ‘destructive fishing’, which will be discussed in the second part of this Blog Post.


Senia Knowledge – Exchange Associate, the One Ocean Hub

Warwick Sauer – Professor, Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science Department, Rhodes University

Alexander Winkler – Researcher at the Ichthyology and Fisheries Science Department, Rhodes University

Joseph Aggrey-Fynn – Professor of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences in the University of Cape Coast, Ghana

Bernadette Snow – Deputy Director of the UKRI GCRF One Ocean Hub and Adjunct Professor, Institute for Coastal and Marine Research at Nelson Mandela University

Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster – Lecturer in International Environmental & Energy Law at the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill; Executive Member and Co-Investigator with the UKRI GCRF One Ocean Hub.