Are we winning the fight against IUU fishing?

11 Apr 2013
Policing of waters worldwide has been a challenge because of the high volume of illegal fishing

Policing of waters worldwide has been a challenge because of the high volume of illegal fishing

Adrian Tatum finds out how illegal fishing is affecting the global fishing industry and discovers what is being put in place to fight the battle against it.

The level of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) catch still remains one of the most serious threats to the global fishing industry.

According to the FAO, latest estimates suggest that the total value of IUU fishing losses worldwide is placed between US$10 and US$23.5bn annually, which equates to between 11 and 26 million tonnes.

The FAO says illegal fishing can represent up to 30% of total catch in some major fisheries around the world. Species still at risk from illegal fishing include bluefin tuna, Patagonian toothfish, Atlantic cod and Alaskan pollock. Although every major fishery in the world is affected, West African waters are estimated to have the highest levels of IUU fishing in the world, representing a massive 37% of the region’s total annual catch. But in Africa, illegal fishing also seriously compromises the food security and livelihoods of many coastal communities. In Sierra Leone, for example, fish represents 64% of total animal protein consumed in the country, with an estimated 200,000 people directly employed in the fisheries.

Pirates
According to the recent report; Pirate Fishing Exposed, by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), between 1 January 2010 and 31 July 2012, EJF’s community surveillance project in southern Sierra Leone received 252 reports of pirate fishing by industrial vessels in inshore areas. EJF’s local staff filmed and photographed 10 different vessels operating illegally, transmitting the evidence to the Sierra Leone Government and European authorities. Nine out of 10 of the vessels are accredited to export their catches to Europe.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), nations are required to monitor and control fishing vessels flying their flag. EJF investigations show that many industrial fishing vessels are out of control: fishing well inside exclusion zones, attacking local fishers, refusing to pay fines, covering their identification markings, using banned fishing equipment, transhipping fish illegally at sea, refusing to stop for fisheries patrols, bribing enforcement officers, fleeing to neighbouring countries to avoid sanctions, and committing labour violations.

EJF has documented the extensive use of Flags of Convenience (FoC), whereby a fishing operator buys a flag from a State that lacks the ability or willingness to monitor its activities. This report demonstrates how flag brokers actively assist unscrupulous fishing operators to “flag hop” between FoC registries and hide their ownership of vessels. Twelve per cent of large-scale fisheries vessels flagged to the top 13 FoC registries are owned by European Union (EU) companies, while no information is available on the owners of a further 17% of FoC vessels. The consequent inability to identify the true owners of fishing vessels is hampering attempts to hold those profiting from pirate fishing to account, says the EJF.

But EJF investigations in Sierra Leone show that compliance with Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) rules across the region is inadequate. This is also facilitating IUU fishing. For example, Guinea does not currently have a functioning VMS. This lack of Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) in Guinea, combined with a recent crackdown on illegal fishing in Sierra Leone, has led many vessels to relocate there. Crew on board an illegal fishing vessel interviewed by EJF in June 2012 described Guinea as the easiest place in the region to fish illegally.

As well as exporting to the EU, EJF has documented IUU vessels exporting high-value fish to Korea. One of these species is yellow croaker (part of the Sciaenidae family), a fish which is a prized delicacy when salted and dried. Known as Gulbi, it sells for US$100 for a small bunch in the Korean market. As one of the main target species for artisanal fishers in Sierra Leone, the fish is an important source of protein for local communities. Yellow Croaker populations in East Asia collapsed in the 1970s, leading fishing fleets to target stocks further afield.

Alarming
These facts make alarming reading. Even more worrying is the fact that the example mentioned above is based on research in just one tiny part of the world. Illegal fishing isn’t isolated - it can be found in almost every fishery in every country.

According to Greenpeace, illegal fishing in the Pacific Ocean causes the region to lose up to AUS$2bn every year. Up to one-third of the fishing activities that take place in the Pacific Ocean is believed to be either illegal or unregulated, says the organisation.

Due to illegal catching and poor governance, Africa losses up to one million tons of fish each year, according to the Director of the Fisheries Center at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

The amount of fish lost in Africa represents 10% of total global losses.

Since July 2008 until the end of 2011, authorities in Australia seized 71 boats within its waters that were conducting illegal fishing operations. Seven boats were seized in 2011. Between July 2007 and July 2008, authorities seized 186 boats for illegal activities, with 141 boats being Indonesian-owned boats. In 2004, around 367 illegal boats were apprehended. It is also widely reported, that between 1998 and 2007 one out of three bluefin tuna caught was done so illegally.

But what recent measures have been put in place to combat illegal fishing as pressures grows on the global sector?

Major step
Just this year the FAO reported that after several years of negotiations, countries have taken a major step against IUU fishing. This comes in the shape of Voluntary Guidelines for Flag State Performance, agreed upon after over five years of consensus-building among (FAO) Member Countries. International guidelines developed through an FAO-led consultative process aim to cut down on IUU fishing by improving the accountability of flag states - those countries which register fishing vessels and authorise them to fly their flags.

The guidelines include recommended approaches to urge, encourage and help flag states comply with their international duties and obligations regarding the flagging and control of fishing vessels. It also presents possible actions in response to non-compliance; while no exact figures are known, it is widely accepted that IUU fishing has escalated in the past two decades and its magnitude is considerable.

The proposed guidelines are wide-ranging and include, among other things, performance assessment criteria and procedures for carrying out assessments and the cooperation between flag states and coastal states.

It also looks at ways to encourage compliance and deter non-compliance by flag states; ways to cooperate with and assist developing states in capacity development and the role that FAO can play in supporting these processes.

It said in addition to facilitating the development of the guidelines, FAO would monitor and report on implementation of the guidelines to the Committee on Fisheries (COFI).

Under the guidelines FAO would also provide in-country technical assistance to countries requiring support; that support might include capacity-building measures like the development of an adequate legal and regulatory framework; strengthening of institutional organisation and infrastructure needed to ensure adequate control of vessels; the development or improvement of monitoring, control and surveillance of fishing vessels and training. The guidelines will be presented to the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) for endorsement in June 2014.

Blacklist

Last year saw an improvement to the 2010 EU regulation which asks for all imports into the EU banned unless the importing company is able to show that the fish comes from non-IUU sources through robust traceability systems, according to the EU. Furthermore, fisheries in countries with an IUU fishing problem will face restrictions and be entered on a blacklist.

World Wildlife Fund Scotland director, Dr Richard Dixon, said: “Pirate fishing is a serious global problem and is having a devastating impact on the marine environment. Often a professionally organised criminal activity, illegal fishing is a major contributor to the depletion of global fish stocks and undermines action designed to help stocks recover and protect other marine wildlife. Illegal fishing also represents a major loss of revenue, particularly to some of the poorest countries in the world where dependency on fisheries for food and livelihoods is high. Thanks to this crackdown, consumers can have greater confidence they are not unwittingly supporting illegal fishing and the destruction of the world's oceans. As the largest market for fish in the world it is right that Europe takes a lead in this area.“

Steps have also recently been taken by the international police organisation, INTERPOL to combat illegal fishing. Project Scale is an INTERPOL initiative to detect, suppress and combat fisheries crime. 

“Project SCALE is an important component of a proposed global system to stop fisheries crime,” said Joshua Reichert, executive vice president at Pew who leads the organisation’s environmental work.

“Illegal fishing threatens the interests of legitimate fishermen worldwide and undermines the ability of the global community to properly manage fisheries in ways that will ensure a healthy future for this vitally important resource.”

“Project SCALE is a natural extension of INTERPOL’s efforts to safeguard species and habitat through effective enforcement,” said David Higgins, manager of INTERPOL’s Environmental Crime Programme.

“With the Interpol network capacity and intelligence-led enforcement, we will contribute to a more focused and coordinated global effort to combat transnational and organised illegal fishing”, said Mr Higgins.

SCALE will work on increasing awareness of illegal fishing crime and its consequences, cooperation across borders, increased monitoring, etc.

A year after the EU launched its IUU regulation in 2010, results did show signs of improvements. Before accepting consignments at European ports, member states now carry out thorough verifications. In 2010, there were 14 cases where imports were refused and 228 additional inspections of third country vessels were reported in Spain, Denmark, Portugal and the UK. A further 4,850 inspections were carried out and 240 infringements were reported.

Next step
The next step to combat illegal fishing, many believe, should be a world-wide catch certification system. This view is also shared by EU Fisheries Commissioner, Maria Damanaki. “I am convinced that such a world-wide programme would bring about a fair trade in fisheries products and would foster an international commitment to combat IUU fishing,” she said recently.

The EU Regulation to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing (No. 1005/2008), which came into force on 1 January 2010, attempts to deter pirate fishing by requiring all consignments of fish imported into Europe to be accompanied by a catch certificate, validated by the vessel’s flag State.

Speaking at the recent 8th International Forum on Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing in London, Ms Damanaki said the EU is getting tougher on countries that are not complying and cooperating in the fight against IUU fishing. “We have started enforcement. The most notable step was made last November, when the [European] Commission warned eight third countries that they will end up on a black list if they do not swiftly start cooperating in the fight against IUU fishing.

We had carefully investigated the compliance record of each of those countries. Even when taking into account the global level of development of the countries, there were strong indications that each of them was neglecting in particular its duties as flag state. And we all know that the responsibility of flag states is the cornerstone of enforcement in the maritime and fisheries world.”

She said after three years the EU IUU regulation was working well. “After three years, the regulation has demonstrated its structural robustness. We are, in reality, starting today to see the first tangible results as we focus on the ‘emerged’ part of the iceberg. I mean with this the most visible parts of the regime, like the listing of countries and vessels. A lot has been done since January 2010. The catch certifications system has been put in place. This was a huge administrative challenge, both for authorities in Europe and abroad and for the industry. In addition, the cooperation with coastal states and NGOs lead to the Commission. The EU continues to push for ever-more ambitious solutions to eradicate IUU fishing,” she added.

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