IUU fishing vessel

It’s estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of the world’s seafood catch constitutes illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and that some African countries lose as much as 40 percent of their fish resource to these illicit activities each year.

Against such a backdrop, there’s a pressing need for the EU’s hard line, zero tolerance approach to IUU fishing to be replicated beyond European borders for the safety of consumers all over the world, said Hans-Jurgen Matern, VP for sustainability and regulatory affairs at the Metro Group and chairman of the Global Food Safety Initiative.

Matern told delegates at the 7th International Forum on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, held in London this week, that IUU and retail were once entities far removed from one other but are now becoming ever more closely intertwined. The Germany-based Metro retail group has 2,123 locations in 33 countries, and Matern said it sold more than 1,000 different products that comprise or include fish.

“We have big business in fish and we have a big, historical interest in fish, but five years ago IUU meant nothing to me. It does now,” said Matern. “We need to tackle [global] stock management. We need to ensure fish can provide for the world’s growing population. But IUU is a threat; it’s a threat to feeding the world. It’s not just the fish which are in danger; it’s our lives. We therefore need to stop IUU so we can effectively manage fish stocks.”

The EU regulation (No. 1005/1008) that was introduced two years ago to combat IUU by removing the opportunity to sell those catches in EU markets has been “a great step” toward seafood traceability, said Matern. But he warned that just covering imports into the EU was not enough.

“Metro has 1,000 fish products coming from everywhere — Malaysia, China, the Philippines and so on — but I have no idea where they were caught. Either the data is not available or it’s unreliable,” he said. 

Concerned about the depletion of fish stocks, Metro last year launched a global seafood purchasing policy that defines the framework for group-wide seafood purchases and provides general guidance for all sales divisions and country organizations. The next step will be for these divisions to develop and implement their own specific seafood procurement guidelines. However, these tailored guidelines must still cover the core elements of the group policy, which include establishing and expanding an environmentally sustainable range of fish, promoting internationally recognized sustainability standards and labels along the entire value chain, and optimizing fishing methods, traceability and labeling of fish.

“The retail business is asking for this,” said Matern. “All our buyers are requested to ask these questions. It’s a business driver.”

But what Matern would really like to see is a “common traceability system” that is adhered to by the whole supply chain, from boat to plate.

“If we think about traceability, the retail sector is the bottleneck. We can’t follow the traceability systems of each and every supplier. Therefore, we need a harmonized solution for the whole world; we need to bring everyone together,” said Matern.

But it’s unlikely that such an initiative could be delivered through multi-government agreement, learned delegates. According to UK Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon, fisheries organizations along with the strong seafood sourcing policies are driving sustainability a lot harder than is widely recognized, whereas trying to get governments from around the world into the same place on these issues “is like herding cats.”

“You see the difficulties we have just within the EU, and within ICAAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) or other organizations to try and get some sort of united governance,” he told the forum. “EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki is very much in favor of the ‘external element’ (beyond EU member states) of the new Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) being based upon sustainability. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. The commission has 27 members, and when we meet as fisheries ministers we go around the table and everyone says some very worthy things. But what they say around a table is one thing. It’s what they actually do in terms of pushing for reforms – that’s where the real battle lays.” 

Benyon said it will be interesting to see whether the “political will” exists to tackle IUU in developing countries, where governments are at the same time trying to increase the populations’ protein intake. “In the meantime, it’s clear is that those IUU operators haven’t gone away and their vessels haven’t been decommissioned,” he said.

Sierra Leone Fisheries Minister Soccoh Kabia told the forum that IUU fishing is perhaps a bigger threat today than ever because it’s become much more concentrated due to the crackdown in other waters. He said his own country currently loses about USD 30 million (EUR 22.8 million) annually to IUU fishing.

“Fish is very important for Sierra Leone,” said Kabia. “Firstly, it brings 10 percent of the GDP of our country. And, secondly, it’s our biggest source of protein.”

Kabia said his government is therefore determined to combat the “madness” of IUU fishing that threatens the country’s fisheries and has implemented a lot of strategies “that are making the IUU operators nervous.” But he warned that illegal fishermen are “slippery” and will quickly find other fisheries to exploit.

“We’re all part of the same chain,” he said. “If one part of that chain is weak, then it will break and the fight becomes ineffective.”

For more analysis and opinion on the battle against IUU fishing, check out Holland’s 6 January commentary “Time to tackle IUU fishing head on.”

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