How Spain can serve as a model for China in tracking and combating IUU

Published on
July 25, 2018

There are many obvious comparisons to be drawn between China and Spain when it comes to seafood. 

Spaniards eat more seafood per capita than any other nation in the European Union. Giant, Vigo-based fishing companies like Nueva Pescanova supply restaurant and supermarket chains around the world in much the same manner as some of their Chinese counterparts, who seek to extend their dominance from contract processing to brand ownership. 

Spain accounts for 23.6 percent of the E.U.’s fishing capacity and, with 898,333 tons produced in 2016, was the first in volume and value terms of seafood for human consumption in the region.   

The world’s leading producer and consumer of seafood, China eats more seafood per capita than most – and almost as much as Spain at 46.2kg/per person – with an average of 45kg/per person per year. 

The comparisons are there, and so are the lessons – Spanish authorities are becoming world leaders in tracking and prosecuting illegal fishing, an area where Spain can serve as a model, and maybe a partner, for China. 

Leading by example

Spanish courts this year levied nearly EUR 9 million (USD 10.5 million) in fines on a group of Vigo fishing fleets and banned their vessels from leaving port or from collecting subsidies for a set number of years. China in the past year has also barred several Chinese fishing firms from operating internationally or from receiving subsidies after the firms were found guilty of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing off of Africa.  

Spain’s recently tough approach to IUU is a turnaround because the E.U. Commission has long been pressuring Spain about illegal fishing by Spanish-owned vessels. Things finally changed in 2014, when the government altered the law to make it easier to prosecute rogue Spanish fishermen operating in international waters and flying other countries’ flags. Collaboration with other jurisdictions is also proving effective.

Spain has been attempting to dispense with an image problem which has dented the reputation of its pelagic fishing industry, according to a major industry figure. The country’s pirates, known as “black legends,” have done “terrible damage to our image,” according to Javier Garat Pérez, secretary general of Confederación Española de Pesca (CEPESCA). 

“While it’s true in the past there were several pirates and companies operating under third country flags government has adjusted legislation so that companies using third country flags can now be prosecuted,” Pérez said last month during the SeaWeb Seafood Summit in Barcelona, Spain.

Tracking rogue vessels is difficult because owners rename them and reflag them. There are numerous Chinese and Spanish vessels operating off the West African coast flying the flag of Mongolia, a land-locked nation, according to Steve Trent at Environmental Justice Foundation, a non-governmental organization.

However, it’s become a lot easier to identify the rogue players in Spain’s fishing industry by virtue of more openness about data collection and sharing. CEPESCA has a 2014 arrangement with the government that allows for monitoring of Spanish vessels in third countries as well as those operating under third-country flags. Monitoring includes real-time, on-board video cameras, e-logbooks, and overseeing landing and transhipment. 

There is a lot at stake given Spain relies on international waters for the bulk of its catch. Meanwhile, the opposite has been the case in the figures reported by China, which in recent years has sought to rehabilitate its own depleted waters and encourage fishing companies to hit the high seas. 

Spain has 810 companies operating around 10,000 vessels with 311,000 tons of capacity, according to CEPESCA. Yet 8,450 of those vessels operate in national waters, accounting for 39 percent of catch. The 106 vessels operating in E.U. waters account for only three percent of catch, while a massive 58 percent of Spain’s catch comes from vessels operating in non-E.U. waters.

In some respects, China and Spain share the same goals. But there are large cultural differences. Sharing data and collecting new data is essential to combatting IUU. But the difference is profound – much of the data shared is regarded as secretive, and could even be interpreted as a state secret, in China. 

A step forward for the global anti-IUU fight would involve China sharing its data, either publicly in the same way Indonesia does, or in a partnership with key global enforcement partners.  

CEPESCA has drawn up and distributed a code of good practice for fishing companies in Vigo, though it’s not clear how the adoption of the code is monitored or promoted. This being said, it’s very hard to find a comparable Chinese language code of good practice for the industry in the country, although government – which licenses firms to fish both within domestic waters and via trawlers working in international waters – has a dedicated inspectorate checking system on the distant-water fleet. 

Approaching African IUU issues

All of these measures matter in parts of the world most affected by IUU and least equipped to respond, such as Africa. Spain could be a key driver of sustainability in African seafood due to its pivotal role as a buyer in the continent. 

The perception of chronic corruption on the continent has contributed to scaring off financing for fishery improvement projects (FIPs), said Pedro Ferreiro Velasco, head of buyer engagement at the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) in Spain. Yet Spain has leverage, given it bought EUR 689 million (USD 806 million) of the region’s seafood, more than twice the figure for second-placed France. China, meanwhile, was in fifth place, purchasing EUR 184 million (USD 215 million) worth of Africa’s seafood, according to 2016 data quoted by Velasco.  

“Spain as the number-one exporter of seafood from sub-Saharan Africa stands to play a major role in driving sustainability in the region,” Velasco said. “MSC and FIPs are failing in Africa, the region with the deepest issue in terms of food security.” 

There is only one MSC-certified fishery on the continent: South African hake. Moreover, only three of the six FIPs earmarked for Africa are actually underway, the other three being prospective. 

It’s not clear how much of the figure for Spanish exports from sub-Saharan Africa includes Chinese vessels’ catch unloaded in African ports. Chinese fishing companies have, however, been aggressively expanding operations in Africa, in part through government-arranged fishery access deals. Chinese fishing companies also enjoy the advantage of fuel subsidies, which could see their role increasing. 

Velasco believes there’s an urgent window during which Spanish-led sustainability and data-collection projects can take place before the nature of the African fishery sector changes with more Chinese ownership and involvement. Alignment is needed, he believes, involving South European retailers, companies with fishing interests, agencies like the World Bank and FAO, as well as NGOs and philanthropic funds. 

“We need to do it now,” said Velasco, “while there’s still time.”

But it may already be too late for Spain to act alone. Getting Chinese retailers, fishing firms, and agencies on board will be equally important in any effective strategy for African fisheries.   

Beyond Africa, data on fishing stocks is another area where China and Spain stand to collaborate. There is serious lack of data on key species on which Spain relies. Spain imports whitefish such as hake from Argentina, a species for which data is not available. The same goes for squid and octopus, which Spain accounts for seven percent and 14 percent of global supply, respectively. Chinese vessels in recent years have gone after those same catches with growing vigour, and are therefore well-positioned to help contribute data needed to monitor these fisheries.

Ultimately, China and Spain have the potential to be a force for change – if they cooperate. 

Photo courtesy of World Ocean Review

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