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Call to make illegal fishing a crime

  • Written by  Melanie Barrin
  • Published in Oceans
Call to make illegal fishing a crime
07 Jun
Ocean conservation group urges world governments to step up action on rule-breakers devastating the planet’s fish stocks

The modern-day pirate does not navigate the tides of the waters armed with a sharpened sword or a skull and crossbones flag floating on the mast of his vessel anymore. Nowadays, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing activities have become one of the ocean’s biggest enemies. However, according to one environmental advocacy group, legal measures and punishments are simply not going far enough to deter such piracy happening around the world.

Oceana, the largest international advocacy organisation founded to focus solely on ocean conservation, has used the occasion of the 45th celebration of World Environment Day and the inauguration of International Day for the Fight Against IUU Fishing (5 June) to push nations to do far more than simply slap wrists and issue fines. Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of Oceana in Europe, issued a statement urging governments around the world to make illegal fishing an environmental crime. ‘Countries need to recognise that large-scale illegal fishing is organised crime and should be dealt with as such,’ he says. ‘Pirates should be behind bars, not sailing free on the world’s oceans.’

The term IUU is used to define a wide range of fishing practices that operate outside the law. Specifically, the European Commission defines fishing as follows:

• Illegal – if it takes place without authorisation and violates conservation and management measures as well as national laws and international obligations

• Unreported – if the catches are not accounted for

• Unregulated – when fishing vessels sport no nationality and are not identifiable, in other words when they do not posses a matriculation number nor figure on any authorised fishing vessels list

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According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 92.6 million tonnes of fish were captured legally in 2015 (this being the most up to date statistical evidence available on global annual fish capture production). However, the FAO also estimates that another 26 million tonnes of fish are extracted each year from the Earth’s aquatic environments as a result of IUU fishing practices. If this estimation is correct, it would mean that 20 per cent (or one in every five) of all fish caught annually are captured through unlawful processes.

The costs of IUU fishing are numerous. First of all, it diverts approximately £17billion away from the global economy every year. This loss most affects the livelihoods of fishing communities that abide by the law. Furthermore, IUU fishing activities also divert resources away from local, small-scale fishing industries in developing countries, exacerbating food insecurity and poverty in what are already some of the most vulnerable regions of the world. IUU fishing also greatly undermines conservation and fish stock management efforts and is often associated with more criminal activities such as slave labour and other human rights violations.

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Fighting IUU fishing practices has become a top international priority and one of the aims set by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals back in 2015 was to end such destructive fishing practices by 2020 (Goal 14: ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’). Back in November 2009, the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (PSMA) was approved by the FAO at its 36th session. It aims to reduce the incentive to engage in IUU fishing activities by preventing vessels practicing unlawful capture methods from gaining access to ports and thus landing their catches. The PSMA formally entered force 5 June 2016, having taken the preceding six and a half years to get the required number of signatories to ratify, accept or approve the agreement. As of May this year, the Agreement is being honoured by 34 individual states and the EU as a whole.

The FAO also issued a policy document – the Voluntary Guidelines for Catch Documentation Schemes (VGCDS) – which was officially adopted in July 2017. The VGCDS provides states with a comprehensive set of tools to determine if fish going through their supply chains originate from catches that are consistent with national, regional and international conservation and management measures. Other international efforts to curb IUU fishing feature the cooperation between nine Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) to compile a Combined Fishing Vessel List. The list enumerates all fishing vessels identified in each RFMO as having been subjected to official INTERPOL attention or reported as engaging in illegal fishing activities. The reports form a collective database allowing states to combat IUU fishing more effectively.

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More localised efforts have also been made to address the problem. Bordering the Indian Ocean, eight countries (Comoros, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, Somalia and Tanzania) have come together in a data-sharing technology project named Fish-i which allows them to exchange information gathered by each respective state on any illegal fishing practices operating within their territory. In the United States, since the start of January this year, the Seafood Import Monitoring Program obliges seafood traders to provide a set of comprehensive tracking documentation for the fish products they wish to sell to American consumers if they wish to see their catches enter US territory.

Alternatively, sustaining global seafood consumption by increasing offshore aquaculture production in order to reduce the necessity of wild catches is another measure being touted to address and effectively decrease IUU fishing practices – although one that has regulatory issues of its own to resolve.

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