Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing

Key U.S. laws permit both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens to receive large monetary rewards for blowing the whistle on fishing-related crimes.
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Illegal fishing threatens ecosystems and puts food security and regional stability at risk.

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Key U.S. laws permit both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens to receive large monetary rewards for blowing the whistle.

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The National Whistleblower Center is the leading organization advocating for the creation and effective implementation of wildlife laws to combat the scourge of illegal fishing.  

Illegal Fishing is Driving an Underwater Crisis 

The U.S. is one of the largest importers of seafood in the world, regularly purchasing over $18 billion of product each year. Yet marine life around the globe is under threat from a host of forces including ocean pollutionclimate changeand illegal fishing, which is sometimes referred to as Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing (or IUU fishing). According to the IUCN Red List, over 2,200 species of marine life are vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.  

Illegal fishing is a particularly grave concern, costing the global economy up to $23 billion USD each year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Illegal fishing is becoming increasingly widespread as corrupt companies ramp up operations to meet growing consumer demand. Fish populations suffer losses from which they are sometimes unable to recover, and fish-dependent communities are left without food security and economic sustenance. 

Whistleblower reports are key to ending illegal fishing practices and allowing ecosystems and fish populations to recover from the strain of overfishing. Oftentimes the only witnesses to violations of law are those brave individuals who work on ships or in ports of call alongside the criminals and bring forward evidence. 

Critical Legislation: Advocacy for the Maritime SAFE Act 

For several years, the National Whistleblower Center has worked with NGO allies, law enforcement officials and policy makers to identify deficiencies in the current legal regime. A key milestone in our efforts was the introduction of the Maritime SAFE Act in the Senate in May 2019. This bill, introduced on a bi-partisan basis by Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Roger Wicker (R-MS), would reach out to and empower whistleblowers to report information about illegal fishing throughout the world, strengthening the enforcement capacity of U.S. laws. It is a critical tool to stop the current illegal fishing crisis.

The National Whistleblower Center worked directly with the Senators’ staff to ensure that the language is as effective and impactful as possible. The language reads (formatting added):


(a) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary of State, in collaboration with the Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of the department in which the Coast Guard [Homeland Security] is operating, shall provide assistance, as appropriate, in accordance with this section.

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(b) LAW ENFORCEMENT TRAINING AND COORDINATION ACTIVITIES.—The officials referred to in subsection (a) shall evaluate opportunities to provide assistance, as appropriate, to countries in priority regions and priority flag states to improve the effectiveness of IUU fishing enforcement, with clear and measurable targets and indicators of success, including—

(5) by supporting increased outreach to stakeholders in the affected communities as key partners in combating and prosecuting IUU fishing.

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(d) CAPACITY BUILDING FOR INVESTIGATIONS AND PROSECUTIONS.—The officials referred to in subsection (a), in collaboration with the governments of countries in priority regions and of priority flag states, shall evaluate opportunities to assist those countries in designing and implementing programs in such countries, as appropriate, to increase the capacity of IUU fishing enforcement and customs and border security officers to improve their ability—

(9) to conduct training on the legal mechanisms that can be used to prosecute those identified in the investigations as alleged perpetrators of IUU fishing and other associated crimes such as trafficking and forced labor; and

(10) to conduct training to raise awareness of the use of whistleblower information and ways to incentivize whistleblowers to come forward with original information related to IUU fishing.

The inclusion of outreach and training is crucial to the success of any whistleblower program, and particularly one which relies on those with information from around the globe. Existing U.S. whistleblower reward programs rely on outreach to stakeholders and broad dissemination in order to build a successful program. Stakeholder communities are the same communities which are most effected by the criminal activity, in this case illegal fishing. And they are the people who are most invested in the success of these laws as well. It is only logical that they be included in the law, through these stakeholder outreach and whistleblower awareness training provisions.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, under the leadership of Chairman Wickers, has approved language from the bill in support of whistleblowers. Now, the full House of Representatives has a chance to vote on the bill. The National Whistleblower Center urges all members of the House to support the whistleblower language.

Read the press release by Senators Coons and Wicker here. Read the full text of the bill as introduced and the latest action by Congress here.

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This maritime bill is only one part of a larger understanding by the wildlife and conservation community of the importance of whistleblowing in halting wildlife trafficking and crime. Just as with the Rescuing Animals with Rewards (RAWR) Act and the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act (H.R.864), the need to include whistleblowers or informants in the enforcement framework is clear.

As a leading whistleblower advocacy organization worldwide with decades of institutional expertise on whistleblower law, the National Whistleblower Center is at the forefront of this work. The Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program was a Grand Prize winner in the 2016 Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, an initiative of USAID in partnership with the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and TRAFFIC. Led by Executive Director John Kostyack, a well-known non-profit leader and attorney with significant experience in the environmental and conservation community, and Board Chairman Stephen Kohn, one of the nation’s leading whistleblower litigators, the National Whistleblower Center is well-positioned to continue to bring whistleblower law expertise to the conservation arena. The National Whistleblower Center is proud to have worked on the drafting of this legal language and to contribute to the creation and strengthening of fishing- and wildlife-focused whistleblower laws.

Empowering Whistleblowers in the Fight Against IUU Fishing 

In addition to the Maritime SAFE Act, several existing U.S. laws provide rewards and protections for whistleblowers who come forward with information related to fishing-related crimes. Among the most important laws are the Lacey Act, Fish and Wildlife Improvement Act, False Claims Act, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and Endangered Species Act. A complete resource of wildlife laws with whistleblower protections can be accessed here

Some of these laws have one or more of the following features that are critical for incentivizing whistleblowers to step forward: 

  • Anonymity, which allows attorneys for the whistleblowers to submit their information to law enforcement without revealing the identity of the whistleblowers.
  • Confidentiality, which allows the information to be provided to law enforcement without informing the public (thus allowing an investigation to take place before the violator has an opportunity to cover its tracks), as well as for law enforcement to investigate using the whistleblowers’ information but ensuring that law enforcement’s actions will not allow anyone to backtrace or otherwise figure out the whistleblowers’ identity. 
  • Rewards, in which law enforcement distributes to the whistleblower a portion of any civil or criminal penalties recovered due to the whistleblower’s information. Some of the laws also provide for restitution to be paid to the communities harmed by the illegal fishing. 
  • Anti-Retaliation, in which the laws prohibit companies from retaliating against the whistleblower for their actions in blowing the whistle, both internally and in cooperating with law enforcement.

A whistleblower need not be a U.S. citizen or a company insider to collect a monetary reward. So long as the whistleblower provides original information not otherwise available to law enforcement, and this information leads to civil or criminal penaltiesmany U.S. whistleblower laws provide for an award to be made. U.S. policy makers wisely recognize that foreign nationals and even NGOs are often essential for successful prosecutions.  

The Role of the National Whistleblower Center 

The National Whistleblower Center works to educate potential whistleblowers about how to participate in whistleblower programs focused on illegal fishing, provides legal assistance to whistleblowers, and advocates for stronger whistleblower protections in Congress and other policy making forums. 

The successful implementation of whistleblower programs and leveraging whistleblower laws will revolutionize the detection of wildlife crime, radically increase effective law enforcement, and help protect the biodiversity of our oceans. 

The U.S. Government Accountability Office

After a year-long investigative process into the current implementation of wildlife whistleblower laws, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) vindicated the position of the National Whistleblower Center. In May 2018, GAO issued a report which demonstrates that U.S. government agencies must take action to better enforce and combat the illegal wildlife trade, including illegal fishing. “This report reinforces the urgent need for Congressional action,” said Stephen M. Kohn, Chairman of the Board of NWC. The report proves that the current wildlife trafficking and extinction crisis is untenable, and that something must be done urgently. The full text of the GAO report can be viewed here.

Both the Department of Commerce (for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the Department of Interior (for the Fish and Wildlife Service), which implement the current laws on the books, have concurred with the GAO’s recommendations. This means that they will be moving forward with changing their current policies on the basis of the GAO’s recommendations – exactly what the National Whistleblower Center has advocated! To see the progress of these agencies in implementing the GAO’s recommendations, click on the recommendations section of the report’s page here.

Read NWC’s In-Depth Analysis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Whistleblower Program

The National Whistleblower Center used Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests to conduct an in-depth analysis of Fish and Wildlife Service’s whistleblower program and its payment of rewards from 2003 to 2016. Access all of the documents on whistleblower cases here. The National Whistleblower Center published a report explaining how the Departments of Commerce and Interior should implement the GAO’s recommendations, drawing upon the lessons learned from the cases analyzed from the FOIA production documents. NWC provided the agencies with this report to assist in their reform process. The report is required reading for anyone who wants to have an in-depth understanding of how these laws should and could work. Read the updated report here.

The National Whistleblower Center continues to fight to ensure that the government agencies in charge of implementing the whistleblower reward laws passed by Congress do so, and do so well. Read more about NWC’s current work on this issue here.

Read About the Vaquita’s Plight

Is the vaquita’s plight linked to the US government’s failure to take advantage of one of its most powerful wildlife crime-fighting tools, whistleblowing? Read the article in Earth Island Journal by journalist Richard Schiffman which investigates the missed opportunities to save the vaquita, a porpoise that has become critically endangered as a result of illegal fishing.

Learn More About NWC’s Work on Wildlife Whistleblowers

  • Chairman of the Board of the National Whistleblower Center, Stephen M. Kohn, is an internationally recognized expert on whistleblower law. He wrote the article “Monetary Rewards for Wildlife Whistleblowers: A Game-Changer in Wildlife Trafficking Detection and Deterrence,” published by the Environmental Law Reporter. The article highlights the need for a qui tam law to fight wildlife trafficking and has been used as a resource by many aiming to halt wildlife trafficking.
  • Learn about the NWC’s Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program and its confidential transnational reporting system, which protects whistleblowers’ identities and educates them about their rights to obtain rewards for reporting wildlife crimes.
  • View NWC Executive Director John Kostyack’s presentation on how citizens can engage in everyday whistleblowing to protect the environment. Featured in Environmental Law Institute’s (ELI) webinar “Collecting and Reporting Evidence of Environmental Law Violations: Tools That Work for Citizens” from June 13, 2019. This webinar was organized by ELI and International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (INECE). Watch the presentation here.

Confidentially Report Illegal Fishing  

If you have information related to illegal fishing, submit a report using our secure, confidential intake form, and our attorneys will review your case for free. Our Whistleblower Legal Assistance Program helps connect whistleblowers with legal representation. You can learn from qualified legal counsel about your potential eligibility for monetary rewards and work with counsel to determine whether and how to submit the information you have to appropriate law enforcement officials.