A totally illegal industry that nonetheless brings in billions of dollars every year,IUU (illegal, unauthorised or unreported) fishing is the blight of the oceans. At a time when fish populations are in freefall – Pacific bluefin tuna populations have dropped by 97 per cent relative to their historical level – and the international community is trying to preserve the wealth of the oceans, illegal practices at sea continue to thrive. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), IUU fishing accounts for as much as 20 to 30 per cent of the fisheries sector, with an estimated annual turnover of between US$10 and 23 billion.
IUU fishing is a highly lucrative and organised business. “It is most often conducted by vessels that actually have fishing licences,” Pavel Klinckhamers, project leader of the pan-Asian Greenpeace campaign to end illegal fishing, tells Equal Times. “There are many boats that may well have licences but they still fish illegally for species they are not allowed to catch or in places where they are not authorised to fish,” he adds.
“IUU fishing is not just about fishing without a licence,” says Heather Stimmler, media director for Sea Shepherd Global. “The most common form of IUU is poaching, of course, but it can also take on much less spectacular forms, which are much harder to detect.” Overfishing and unreported fishing of protected fish species are examples of the abuses faced by ocean defenders.
As Peter Horn, director of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project at the Pew Trust, points out: “There are several reports suggesting that one in five fish is caught through IUU fishing. And whilst the figure is certainly lower in European waters, in areas under stress, such as the coast of West Africa, it is estimated at two in five fish. The impact of these activities is significant, and for certain vulnerable countries, it is catastrophic.”
The plight of small-scale fishers
More fragile countries are easier targets for IUU fishing because they lack the resources to monitor their coast properly. “IUU fishing is symptomatic of countries where political authority is weak,” Peter Horn tells Equal Times. And as Lindsay Jennings, IUU fishing project director for FishWise tells us, it is “a threat to marine ecosystems and food security” in vulnerable countries such as Ghana.
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing can hold disastrous repercussions for these countries: overfishing empties territorial waters of their fish and createsfood insecurity for hundreds of small-scale fishers who depend on these resources to survive and to feed their families.
In Ghana, for example, IUU fishing is a threat to the 2.5 million people who depend on marine resources for survival. The country’s waters have been among the most overfished in the world since 2012, particularly by Chinese fleets, as detailed in a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation.
An estimated 37 per cent of the fish caught in Ghana each year is IUU, creating annual losses of around US$1 billion. The country is located in one of the areas worst affected by illegal fishing – West Africa, although the waters in certain parts of Asia and the coasts of Latin America are also hugely overexploited, by Chinese long-distance fleets in the main but also by some European shipowners. These excesses are part of the wider trend of ‘ocean grabbing’, with strong political powers taking advantage of weaker ones.
The worst abuses often take place with impunity in these hotspots, with IUU fishing operations taking full advantage of the sheer immensity of our seas and oceans. For developing countries, exercising control over their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), areas extending 200 nautical miles from the coast where countries have special rights to explore and use resources, is a real struggle. EEZs represent vast areas for the maritime authorities of countries already faced with substantial economic difficulties and insecurity on land.
Flags of convenience and untraceable fish
Sea pirates are all the more difficult to punish as they are free to hide in international waters, which represent more than 60 per cent of the world’s seas and oceans, and do not come under the jurisdiction of any state. “Once you are in international waters, no country has the authority to make an arrest,” says Stimmler. Because under the law of the sea, the legislation that applies to a ship in international waters is the law of the country whose flag it is flying. A simple rule…on the face of it.
But thanks to what are known as flags of convenience or open registries, pirates of all kinds are free to act with impunity on the world’s oceans. Shipowners often choose them because they are more lax in terms of safety standards or labour laws. Thirty-five countries are considered to have flags of convenience by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). The main ones are Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands. According to a 2015 report, 71 per cent of merchant fleet tonnage was registered under flags of convenience, compared with 51.3 per cent in 2005.
While not all flags of convenience imply illegal activities, the ease with which pirate ships can change their country of registration makes it more difficult to track them down.
“These flags symbolise the lack of transparency around fishing,” Horn tells Equal Times. “They allow certain shipowners to make it more difficult to identify them.” The level of regulation is, however, increasing. The number of flags of convenience has seen a slight fall since 2015, according to the Pew Trust project director.
The lack of regulation around the oceans is one of the main reasons so many abuses are committed. The flags of convenience are not the only problem: transhipment, which allows fishing vessels to stay at sea for months on end and to transfer their catches to other vessels that take them back to port, is another source of widespread criticism. “The problem with this practice is that it is not properly regulated and it opens the door to IUU fishing and all kinds of trafficking on the high seas,” Horn tells Equal Times. And as Heather Stimmler explains: “Small boats can fish illegally, as once their fish is transferred, it becomes impossible to trace the products.” It is a veritable ‘fish laundering’ tool.
In an attempt to preserve transhipment while regulating it more effectively, the FAO is currently working on a new set of rules in a bid to clarify the ethical practices to be used during this process. At-sea transhipment could be banned in favour of transhipment near ports, which would enable better goods regulation and allow more observers in charge of monitoring fishing practices to board vessels.
The example of FISH-i in Africa
The countries of the world are trying to mobilise to tackle IUU fishing. Bodies such as Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) have been set up in several parts of the world to ensure better fishing regulation and vessel monitoring. “The fight against IUU fishing is a team sport,” says Horn. Indeed, the detention of pirate vessels may require the intervention of several countries. And to facilitate management and monitoring operations, several associations are calling for the introduction of unique identification numbers for all vessels, so that they can be traced throughout their life.
“This requires real cooperation between the various countries,” says Stimmler. And the idea is beginning to take hold. The non-profit organisation Stop Illegal Fishing (SIF), based in Gaborone, Botswana, has created the FISH-i task force, a group of eight countries from the region that are all working together. The region’s governments, Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd are working in partnership to improve the chances of stopping pirate vessels. And this type of operation is bearing fruit.
“Over the past five years, more and more countries have become aware of the magnitude of the problem and the number of arrests has increased,” says Sea Shepherd’s media director.
New technologies, such as cameras and surveillance systems, are also part of the solution. there is no shortage of solutions. What are often in short supply, however, are the means. Whilst the Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), set up by states to track fishery activity around the globe, provide some hope and encouragement, their effectiveness remains limited: “I am always amazed, when I am at sea, on the coast of West Africa, to see the difference between the vessel tracking system results and what I actually see on the water,” says Klinckhamers. “There are always 50 to 100 per cent more boats in the areas monitored, so you only see the tip of the iceberg through technology.” The key perhaps lies in expanding the number of surveillance mechanisms. French researchers have, for example, developeda system to track albatrosses that follow fishing boats for food – using sensors to record the undeclared presence of boats.
Agreements and subsidies
The international community is not standing idle in the face of this issue. The Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), signed in 2010, is the first internationally binding agreement specifically dealing with illegal fishing. Its main objective is to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal fishing, preventing vessels engaged in these activities from using ports to land their catches. The agreement seeks to discourage vessels from engaging in such activities and to stop illegal fisheries products from reaching national and international markets.
Another initiative taken by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) seeks to put an end to the fisheries subsidies in place in many countries. This practice makes fish artificially cheap and encourages illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The international organisation is calling on countries to refrain from granting new ones. “The WTO is negotiating with many of the countries providing these detrimental subsidies,” Lindsay Jennings of FishWise tells Equal Times.
Such initiatives may well bear fruit in the years to come. But we need to act more quickly.
Given the scale of the IUU fishing phenomenon, ever more oceanographers are calling on the international community to take urgent action to create more marine protected areas and to reduce the world’s fishing fleet.
A first step in the right direction was taken last June when Senegal refused new fishing authorisations for China’s long-distance fishing fleet, which was requesting licences for 52 new vessels, despite the overcrowding already affecting Senegal’s waters. The decision was taken under pressure from small-scale fishers and local environmental groups. But progress is slow.
It took the international community ten years to agree on the need to establish a High Seas Treaty, on which the first negotiations began in 2018. The aim is to create a new binding international legal instrument to protect the biodiversity of the oceans and promote the sustainable use of this biodiversity on the high seas. The treaty discussed at the UN was due to be finalised in March and should establish marine protected areas to enable fish stocks to recover. Consideration of the text has, however, been postponed, as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. Greenpeace calls it a “last chance treaty” for the oceans. Time is running out: marine species have declined by 39 per cent in 40 years, in a world where 3.8 billion people depend on the oceans for food.