A grass-roots approach to ending IUU fishing

Published on
January 23, 2011

Despite the best intentions of regulations designed to prevent illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, there’s a growing feeling that the practice won’t be completely wiped out until seafood consumers are outraged to the point of demanding wholesale change.

Few people would disagree with EU Fisheries Minister Maria Damanaki’s assessment that there are plenty of positives to be taken from the first year of the EU regulations designed to combat IUU fishing.

Damanaki told delegates at the 6th International Forum on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, held this month in London, that prior to 2010 IUU fishing was the second largest producer of fisheries products in the world, worth approximately EUR 10 billion (USD 13.5 billion), or 19 percent of the worldwide seafood catch. She also conceded that the EU had been “no saint” and was guilty of indirectly supporting IUU fishing through its imports of illegally caught fish.

“Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exact numbers, it’s been estimated the EU in previous years imported EUR 1.1 billion (USD 1.5 billion) of illegal fish every year. That’s almost 16 percent of the EU’s imports of fish,” said Damanaki.

While things are moving in the right direction, there’s a growing concern about those operators who aren’t onboard. It’s widely assumed these operators haven’t simply misjudged regulations’ demands but instead purposefully flout the rules to maximize profits.

“Our fight against illegal fishing is bringing about concrete results,” said Damanaki. “Operators have been shifting their sourcing to companies that comply with the rules. And due to our efforts supporting third countries in implementing this regulation, 90 of our trading partners have implemented the catch certification scheme.”

Those trading partners that haven’t signed up and who are now effectively banned from exporting seafood products into the EU include the likes of Hong Kong, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. Without doubt, zero tolerance regulations are effective tools. But could more be done at a grass-roots level to eradicate IUU fishing?

Mark Powell, the World Wildlife Fund’s global seafood leader, thinks so. He believes that putting the fight against IUU fishing under the noses of consumers would make IUU products even less acceptable in the marketplace. He said that while IUU fishing is a problem, it’s part of a much bigger picture, which is the culture of cheating that exists in the seafood industry, including short-weighting and mislabeling.

Powell acknowledged the efforts of British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his new Fish Fight campaign, which is largely geared toward making consumers aware of how much fish is discarded at sea under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. This is an example of where shortening the supply chain can instigate change, he said.

“Not everything Hugh says or does is 100 percent correct, but he’s got great energy for change, both in the industry and with the people he’s reaching with his TV shows,” said Powell, adding that if, as a result, people deliberate over their seafood products and consider for a few seconds whether they should make that purchase then that inspires change.

According to Powell, other strategies that connect consumers with ingrained problems and encourage change include eco-labeling, seafood-buying guides and the Fish2Fork website that recommends restaurants according to the sustainability of the seafood they serve rather than the quality of the meal or service.

“We have to find ways to make IUU fishing unacceptable,” he said. “We can’t enforce it or regulate it out of existence as long as there’s still value in fishing illegally. But there are things we can do if we work together that will bring IUU fishing to the top of the agenda.

“In the case of Hugh’s Fish Fight, there are now people on the street talking about sustainable seafood and about fishermen being forced to throw away good fish. Fishermen, managers, customers — they’re all on the same side in Hugh’s campaign,” he continued. “We can do that for IUU.”

Perhaps Powell is onto something, and the next logical step for this industry should be to take a leaf from Fearnley-Whittingstall’s book and ask consumers outright if they want to continue to be part of the problem or if they want to help end illegal fishing. It could also be argued that action now would give a timely, much-needed shot in the arm for seafood’s consumer credibility.

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Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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