IUU Fishing Homepage

The European Commission made history this week with a first-ever ban on seafood products from three countries — Belize, Guinea and Cambodia — due to a lack of compliance by those countries with laws regarding illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. However, opinions vary on what the short and long-term impacts of the ban will be.

While the commission and supporters see this as a positive step in a campaign to stop IUU fishing, at least one detractor described the ban as ineffective and an overreaction to a problem that would be better controlled by targeting larger offenders.

Ramón Garcia-Gallardo, an attorney in Brussels at the law firm King & Wood Mallesons SJ Berwin, specializing in fisheries and representing the tuna industry in particular, described the "simplistic" ban as victimizing small countries that are minor characters in a larger play.

The commission announced the ban on 24 March. The three banned countries may not export any seafood to the European Union, nor may vessels bearing flags of E.U. member states fish in those countries' waters.

Looking at the raw statistics, Belize stands to lose the most from the sanctions. According to a 2002-2012 query to the European Commission's online market access database, imports to the E.U. from Belize, while fluctuating for years, began to grow steadily from 646,000 kg valued at EUR 2.8 million (USD 3.8 million) in 2008 to 4.7 million kg valued at EUR 11.5 million (USD 15.8 million) in 2012.

Guinea exports to the E.U. declined fairly steadily from 2002-2007, bottomed out at 460,000 kg in 2008, with a value of EUR 928,040 (USD 1.3 million), then began to rise, with 2012 figures totaling 907,500 kg, at a value of EUR 1.9 million (USD 2.6 million).

Cambodia, by contrast, has exported little seafood to the E.U. over the same decade. Commission records show the country exported 800 kg of seafood to the E.U. in 2002, with a value of EUR 11,600 (USD 15,933). The only other record of any quantity exported was in 2006, of 100 kg, with a value that year of EUR 2,680 (USD 3,681).

Even these numbers are in dispute. The commission has indicated that Guinea has been under a sanitary embargo for the past several years, and shouldn't be exporting any seafood at all. Regarding Belize, Garcia-Gallardo said the export numbers are a total of fishery products and aquaculture, so in reality that country exports much less seafood to Europe that has been fished by its vessels.

"They only have a few who have requested sanitary authorization to export to the E.U.," he said.

Max Schmidt, oceans project coordinator at the nonprofit Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a strong supporter of the trade ban, noted the Belize numbers should be higher since they don't take into account product shipped to another country for processing, such as tuna that is sent from Belize to Ghana for canning, then exported to the E.U., but labeled as an export from Ghana.

Regardless of the exact figures, with the E.U. importing a total of approximately 7.7 billion kilograms of seafood in 2012, no one is disputing that the fishing industries of all three of the nations labeled in the new ban are small players in the European seafood industry, if they are even players at all. Proponents of the ban insist that one must see the bigger picture before it all makes sense, taking into account the IUU fishing going on in the banned countries' waters with their consent, and/or the part the ban plays in the overall campaign to stop IUU fishing worldwide.

A spokesman for the commission indicated that Guinea is on Africa's West coast, an area that remains a hotbed of IUU activity and a major focus of the E.U.'s ongoing anti-IUU efforts. While Guinea itself may not be conducting much of the IUU activities, other countries' vessels are doing so with Guinea's consent, according to the commission.

That doesn't make sense, according to Garcia-Gallardo, who said 60 percent of tuna fishing vessels, for example, operate in international waters, and not the domain of any one country, which means they couldn't be violating the IUU laws.

Schmidt, when asked about this percentage, couldn't confirm Garcia-Gallardo's number, but acknowledged that "a substantial part of it does happen on the high seas." Still, he said even if the 60 percent figure is correct, that leaves 40 percent in territorial waters, which still constitutes a significant portion of the industry that must be monitored and controlled.

Belize and Cambodia, the commission's spokesman said, are also failing to take responsibility for vessels from other countries flying their flags while conducting IUU fishing operations elsewhere in the world, such as off the African coast, a practice the spokesman referred to as "flag of convenience" behavior.

Garcia-Gallardo countered that many fishing companies secure open-sea licensing through countries like Belize and Cambodia, but many other countries issue similar licenses that do not cover fishing in territorial waters.

"To associate IUU with countries that issue fishing permits to operate in international waters has nothing to do with flag of convenience," he said. "This is a simplistic approach made by some NGO's and some officers from the commission. Countries like Spain, France, the U.S.A., Italy and other coastal countries regularly grant fishing licenses to operate in the high seas, particularly for tuna."

The commission emphasized too that this ban is the first step in an ongoing negotiation process with other countries that may be conducting or permitting IUU fishing. The commission is now working with several other nations, including Panama, Korea, China and Taiwan, countries the commission alleged are conducting IUU fishing in various areas around the world, including off West Africa.

Garcia-Gallardo believes this is the real reason the commission has set up the ban in the first place. He acknowledged that IUU fishing is a problem, and he praised the commission's interest and efforts in trying to control it, but said the commission is unfairly clamping down on smaller offenders to get at the bigger ones. Rather than punishing those countries, he said he believes the ban's true purpose is to serve as a message to the world, which he described as "We'll start with smaller countries to show we can do it to larger countries."

Schmidt disputed that idea, saying the countries do deserve the ban, but speculated the smaller countries were the low-hanging fruit, and therefore an easy starting point for the E.U.'s ongoing campaign against IUU.

"I think these nations are the real obvious slam-dunk cases," he said.

The real prize is Korea, said Schmidt. It has dozens, if not hundreds, of vessels operating in major IUU territories, but Korea and other larger offenders have more resources and political will than the smaller nations like Belize, Cambodia and Guinea, and thus take longer to be held accountable for IUU violations.

"That's taking the E.U. understandably longer to go through the process," Schmidt said.

Schmidt said he, the EJF and other NGOs hope the ban will prompt progress with Korea, which he said so far hasn't done much to address the problem.

"We haven't seen signs of improvement," he said.

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