What Happens if You Keep an Illegal Fish?

What Happens if You Keep an Illegal Fish?

With the fish market ranking higher in stocks by the day, the act of illegal fishing is on the rise as well. 

Most anglers and fish consumers are unaware of illegal fishing and its consequences. While the name seems intimidating, illegal fishing affects the market as a whole by adding to overfishing, unfair competition, and hinders sustainable angling. 

So, what happens if you keep an illegal fish?

While there are no personal consequences if you keep an illegal fish, you add to the chain of widespread problems and become a part of it. By keeping an illegal fish, you contribute to unequal growth and hamper the sustainability of legal fisheries and legalized angling.

Here we’ve compiled all you need to know about illegal fishing, the consequences of it, and how you can help to prevent it. 

What is illegal fishing?

Illegal fishing is a part of IUU fishing which stands for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. Illegal fishing in specific refers to:

  • Fishing without a proper and legal license
  • Fishing in a private or closed off area
  • Fishing with banned equipment
  • Fishing over the limit
  • Angling endangered species

Typically, a licensed vessel of fishing is given a quota for fishing. Illegal fishing enables anglers to fish more than the allowed catch threshold and the act goes unreported. This act can lead to endangerment of species with altered annual reports.

Unregulated fishing also occurs on high seas making them a prime spot for illegal fishing. While illegal fishing on high seas does not break national laws, it adversely affects marine life. Thus, there’s a dire need for law development for illegal fishing.

Is illegal fishing a crime?

While fishing without a license is a crime, illegal fishing in specific is a crime by national law. However, Illegal fishing falls under the unregulated category which makes it hard to track. Additionally, illegal fishing is associated with other crimes.

These activities include forging of documents, misleading information, contributing to unregulated activities, and so on. Lack of regulation in fishing vessels has paved way for other illegal acts such as illegal immigration, drug trafficking, human trafficking as well as modern slavery.

What happens if you keep an illegal fish?

Keeping illegal fish is common amongst anglers that treat their catches as prized possessions. Anglers tend to capture endangered species despite being aware of the legal implications. 

If an angler does out of season or size limit fishing violations, the act is charged as a second-degree misdemeanor. The penalty can land you up to 60 days in prison with $500 per violation.

The first-degree misdemeanor is charged for major violations such as using prohibited equipment, exceeding the flagrant limit, illegally selling your catch, or stealing crab traps. This can cost the angler over a year in jail with a $100 fine per act.

Another common illegal method is “fillet and release”, where the fish is filleted offshore and the filleted meat is brought back to be sold illegally. This act comes under a first-degree misdemeanor. 

Impacts of illegal fishing

Despite the act being heavily looked down upon and being met with hefty fines, illegal fishing and its impacts are not broadly discussed. 

Illegal fishing not only contributes to the endangerment of certain species but also poses to be a threat to marine life through overfishing. Illegal fishing acts as a proprietor for the disruption of the fishing industry worldwide and understanding its consequences is the first step towards prevention.

Endangered Species 

Illegal fishing is one of the biggest threats to endangered species. Anglers partake in illegal fishing by catching banned marine life so they can add to their list of prized possessions. 

This not only adds to the rapid decrease in population for these species but also proves to be a threat to the entire marine ecosystem. 

Endangered species are the major target for illegal fishers and if this unregulated act persists, we will be left with no marine life at the end. 

Global Overfishing

Each licensed angler or fishery is assigned a quota for fishing. This is to prevent the act of overfishing. Overfishing, as the name states, is the act of fishing in an area to such an extent that it threatens the population of fish. Illegal fishing contributes to this greatly.

For example, a fishery is assigned a certain quota and some anglers decide to illegally fish there. Since this act is without regulation, it exceeds the administered quota for a certain area. This can lead to the endangerment of species and population of the marine life overall. 

Thus, illegal fishing contributes to global overfishing which is a worldwide threat to all marine life and their sustainability.

Disruption of the Licensed Anglers

Illegal fishing affects legitimate fisheries and commercial anglers greatly. Illegal fishers get by without excessive charges and alter their documentation to launder their illegal catch.

This paves way for unfair competition and taking away the rights of those running their business through legalized means. This act of fish laundering adversely affects the fish population as well. 

The loss to the fishing industry 

This unregulated act affects the accuracy of fish catch which in turn leads to inaccurate stock estimates. This adversely affects the working of sustainable fisheries as they use the estimated catch to regulate the quota and prevent overfishing. 

However, due to illegal fishing, the real volume of the catch is unknown which makes it harder to regulate the existing fisheries and prevent adverse effects. 

Environmental Damage 

Illegal fishing includes the usage of prohibited equipment and fishing gear. This includes driftnets that are a danger for sharks, dolphins, and turtles and also physically damages the area of angling. 

Such equipment destroys reefs, seamounts, and other marine ecosystems which are valuable for the sustainability of marine life.


Illegal fishing has a significant impact on both the livelihood of marine ecosystems and the fishing industry. If you keep an illegal fish you are enabling the culture of disruption of marine life. 

Therefore, always get fish from known sustainably sourced fisheries and report to your local authorities if you happen to come across an illegal angler.  

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