What’s next in the fight against illegal fishing?

06 Apr 2015

The political and industry support is already there, but what systems are being put in place to make sure countries can be more effective against illegal fishing in the future? Adrian Tatum reports.

Fishing nations around the world have got much tougher on illegal fishing by delivering heavier sanctions and harsher penalties. But can illegal fishing ever be totally eradicated or will the future be more about finding new ways to effectively control and manage it?  

While there has been significant progress with illegal fishing, not all countries have made the level required. The European Commission recently granted extensions to Ghana, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines to their work against illegal fishing. They have been issued with warnings for not doing enough to address their fisheries control weaknesses. These included weak legislation, a lack of a system of sanctions in place to sufficiently deter illegal fishing activities and a weakness in the systems for control and monitoring. This highlights some important points. The first is that, despite much progress around the world, there is still much work to do, and the second is illegal fishing will never be eradicated or effectively controlled unless the right control and monitoring systems are in place alongside the necessary supporting legislation.  

The European Union (EU) estimates the global value of illegal fishing is approximately €10bn per year, with between 11 and 26 million tones of fish being caught illegally every year. This is about 15% of the total catch around the world.

The EU says it will increase its fight against illegal fishing as part of its aim to ensure the sustainable use of the sea and its resources. Last year the EU adopted trade measures against Belize (although that has now changed because of the country’s further cooperation), Cambodia and Guinea for their lack of efforts towards illegal fishing. This year measures have been imposed against Sri Lanka and more are likely to be put in place against other nations.

Guidance
Countries delivering new and innovative ways of monitoring and controlling are likely to determine future success against illegal fishing around the globe. The UK, for example, has produced detailed guidance for British businesses including its retailers and food suppliers to help keep illegal fish products out of its food supply chain. It suggests ways these retailers and suppliers should act to end illegal fishing and improve sustainable fisheries and offers advice on risk-assessment and mitigation and encourages actions to prevent illegal products entering the supply chain.

The guidance, which has been produced by the British Retail Consortium, Environmental Justice Foundation and WWF UK follows an investigation last year by the UK’s Guardian newspaper which found Tai prawns sold to UK supermarkets were being produced with the helps of slaves who were being subjected to violence. Eight key recommendations have come from the document, closely related to increased transparency and traceability of fish supplies. This includes a requirement for all large vessels to have unique identification to enable satellite tracking.

Elsewhere, South Korea has recently announced that it will widen the fishing area for its vessels operating in the Yellow Sea in a bid to help capture Chinese boats operating illegally in the zone.

According to the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries of South Korea, the government has decided to expand the area of fishing around the country's five westernmost islands by 81km2 to help increase the income of fishermen on those islands who are struggling against illegal fishing by Chinese vessels. 

More than 2,000 Chinese fishing boats operate in the shared fishing zone between South Korea and China in the Yellow Sea, with around 300 Chinese vessels entering South Korea's territorial waters illegally on a daily basis, noted the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. The expansion will bring the total area for fishing from the current 1,519km2 to 1,600km2.

Recently Spain’s new approach to illegal fishing has won praise from around the world. This will see the country impose stronger penalties against any citizen involved in illegal fishing than anywhere else in the world. Key industry stakeholders have called for the rest of the European Member States to follow similar laws in order to effectively fight illegal fishing globally.

The new Spanish fisheries law 33/2014 is the translation into Spanish legislation of the EU’s illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing regulation, which requires all EU member States to take action against citizens and companies found to be involved in any IUU fishing activities.

The new law puts in place measures enabling the Spanish government to act against Spanish citizens benefiting economically from operating illegally. For example, Spanish nationals or companies benefiting from illegal operations of fishing vessels under any flag, including flags of convenience, and owned or operated by ‘shell’ companies in tax havens.

Technology
Technology is also playing an increasingly important part in the fight against illegal fishing and some of it is becoming very advanced. A new monitoring system has been developed by the Satellite Applications Catapult, a British government-backed innovation in collaboration with Pew Charitable Trusts.

The project will bring together and check information from tens of thousands of fishing vessels operating around the world in a ‘virtual watch room’ showing the information and location of vessels on a giant video wall displaying the map of the world.  

The data used to draw this map comes from various sources, the most important of which are vessels’ automatic identification systems (AIS). They broadcast a vessel’s identity, position and other information to nearby ships and coastal stations, and also to satellites. An AIS is mandatory for all commercial vessels, fishing boats included, with a gross tonnage of more than 300. Such boats are also required, in many cases, to carry a second device, known as a VMS (vessel monitoring system). This transmits similar data directly to the authorities who control the waters in which the vessel is fishing, and carrying it is a condition of a boat’s licence to fish there.  

The watch room first filters vessels it believes are fishing from those that are not. It does this by looking at, for example, which boats are in areas where fish congregate. It then tracks these boats using a series of algorithms that trigger an alert if, say, a vessel enters a marine conservation area and slows to fishing speed, or goes ‘dark’ by turning off its identification systems. Operators can then zoom in on the vessel and request further information to find out what is going on. Satellites armed with synthetic-aperture radar can detect a vessel’s position regardless of weather conditions. This means that even if a ship has gone dark, its fishing pattern can be logged.  

It may seem like it is ‘Big Brother’ watching. But if that is what it takes in the fight against illegal fishing then more innovation and systems like this are welcome.  

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