The link between illegal fishing and piracy

Government authorities and shipping industry insiders are increasingly concerned that maritime piracy will rise globally as huge, commercial fishing firms—especially the ones that operate illegally—drive fishermen from poor countries out of business.

A trawler moored in Dakar on Jan. 5, 2014.
Seyllou | AFP | Getty Images
A trawler moored in Dakar on Jan. 5, 2014.

Local fishermen who have plied their trade for generations in Latin America, Africa, Asia and even Northern Europe increasingly find their livelihood threatened by commercial fishing operations whose scale and more advanced vessels are just too much to compete against.

Though it's impossible to quantify how many pirates were once fishermen, experts agree that many small fishermen have turned to stealing from big merchant ships as their fisheries have been wiped out.

"When people don't have any way of feeding their families by fishing, they don't have many options," meaning some will turn to maritime crime, said Lisa Speer, director of the international oceans program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Read MoreCrime on the high seas: The world's most pirated waters

Countries that border on an ocean all have a 200-mile boundary within which they have exclusive fishing rights. (Exclusive economic zones extend much further into the ocean than "territorial waters" do.) But poorer countries often don't have the naval craft needed to patrol and protect their own rightful economic zones.

The problem is exacerbated by commercial fishing companies that fly "flags of convenience" on their ships. Companies illegally poaching on a country's fishing rights often fly the national flag of some third-party nation—usually one that can't or won't exert control over its own flagged vessels—in order to conceal their true identities and avoid international laws, according to a 2012 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Other reports from government agencies, such as Australia's Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, support those U.N. findings. Illegal fishing operations take between $10 billion and $23.5 billion worth of fish annually.

Such illegal fishing ships, which are much bigger than private fishermen's vessels and can haul in tons of fish, sometimes decimate the fishing stock of a particular area and then move on to somewhere else. That leaves local fishermen without a livelihood. Some of them are turning to piracy, especially as pirates from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Horn of Africa or Nigeria repeatedly demonstrate how profitable it can be.

Read MoreLook out, Asian pirates: US set to enter the fight

"If enough impoverished areas of the world feel that what [the pirates] have carried out has been very successful, this will spread," Capt. David Watkins, a fleet quality assurance manager for Swire Group's China Navigation unit, told CNBC this month.

CNBC this week produced an in-depth look at maritime piracy in South Asia, where incidents are increasing, becoming more complex and appear to be connected to organized crime.

The widespread dependence on fishing for people in poor nations is demonstrated by examining aggregated data on the world's fishing fleet. There were about 4.7 million fishing vessels in operation in 2012, according to the United Nations, of which only 57 percent are motorized.

Among the vessels with engines, about 79 percent are under 12 meters (about 39 feet) in length.

An Australian government examination of data from naval insurer Lloyd's Register of Ships found that many of the companies that use flags of convenience are actually based in Taiwan and the European Union, with Spanish firms accounting for about half of the EU total. Russia is another prominent flag-hopping nation, according to Llyod's.

The most common flags of convenience come from Panama, Liberia, the Marshall Islands and Malta. More than half of the world's merchant fleet is flagged to one of those countries, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Two popular flag-of-convenience countries—Bolivia and Mongolia—do not possess shoreline.

—By CNBC's Ted Kemp