How the IUU red card helped turned Belize around

Because illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) is a threat on multiple levels, including but not limited to livelihoods, food security and ocean health, especially in developing countries, its eradication is a core aim for an increasing number of directly affected nations and end markets.

The main driver for IUU fishing is, of course, money. This particular black market is estimated to have an annual worth somewhere between USD 10 billion (EUR 9 billion) and USD 23 billion (EUR 20.8 billion), involving between 11 and 26 million metric tons (MT) of seafood products. There is, though, good reason for optimism, and delegates at the 2016 SeaWeb Seafood Summit and the 9th International Forum on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, in Malta and London respectively, heard that while a lot still needs to be done, fighting this scourge is uniting industry, policymakers and NGOs and progress is most definitely being made.

The EU’s IUU Regulation, introduced in 2010, is widely regarded as one of the most effective weapons to date in the war on the illegal fish trade. It fights illicit trade through three main tools: A catch certificate scheme, whereby only those marine products that are validated as legally caught can be imported to or exported from the EU; substantial penalties for EU nationals who engage in or support IUU fishing anywhere in the world and under any flag; and the third-country carding process that sees countries deemed not to have adequate measures in place to ensure their catch is legal issued with a formal warning or “yellow card.” And if there’s no swift improvement, that country will receive a “red card,” effectively banning its fish products from the EU market.

It’s this last element – the identification of non-cooperating third countries – where the regulation is the most visible, confirmed Joao Aguiar Machedo, the European Commission’s Director General of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs. He told the IUU forum that the yellow cards provide a framework for the commission to work with the country in question to identify and address its shortcomings and get the yellow or red cards lifted – in other words, be “green carded.”

Over the past six years, the commission has engaged with more than 50 third countries, seeking improvements in their anti-IUU measures. Most undertook reforms recommended by Brussels with no warnings issued, but 20 countries have received yellow cards. So far, eight of these have taken the necessary steps and have subsequently received green cards.

However, the EC has had to issue a red card to four countries for non-cooperation: Belize, Guinea, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. Three of these – Guinea, Cambodia and Sri Lanka – remain red carded today, while Belize took sufficient action for its red card to be rescinded in December 2014 and then awarded a green card.

According to Machedo, the main reason for Belize’s initial yellow card, given in November 2012, was its failure to comply with international obligations to police fishing vessels flying its flag. The country’s vessel registry had been privatized and there was concern among regulators that corrupt operators were using Belize as a flag of convenience to avoid stricter controls. Failure to take action resulted in the Central America country receiving a red card in early 2014, at which point its fishery products were banned from EU member states.

Damaged reputation

During its blacklist period, Belize engaged in “very serious dialogue” with the EC “to respond step-by-step” to what it was advising, and the subsequent response led to specific measures being taken, including the creation of a comprehensive legal framework together with specific security measures, explained Ambassador Dylan Vernon of the Embassy of Belize in Belgium.

Vernon highlighted that a number of actions had already begun prior to the ban, including a decision taken by the Belize government in June 2013 to renationalize the marine registry and bring it directly under its control.

“It was unfortunate that some of the actions that we took during this process occurred too late to be taken into consideration in the eyes of the European Commission to slow down the red card,” Vernon said. “We felt we had done enough to not be red carded but the process was already underway.”

Belize’s reputation suffered some damage as a result, explained Vernon. At least one EU member state banned fishery exports from Belize while it was still on a yellow card. Furthermore, there was a misconception that all fishing exports were banned from the EU, which wasn’t the case – it was only the fish caught in high seas.

“That misconception led to some bad press nationally and regionally that could have been avoided if handled more delicately on the EU side. To the point that a couple of donors were questioning whether they should withdraw from our environmental marine programs because of the red card.”

Nevertheless, the red carding was a positive experience “on the whole,” with some good outcomes, he said.

“The measures undertaken by Belize were significant improvements to what was [previously] in place, and rationally one has to commend and give some credit to the EU process.”

In addition to the improvements to the legal framework, the ambassador pointed to a “significant decrease” of Belize’s high seas fishing fleet. Whereas in 2013, prior to its delisting, this fleet comprised 96 vessels with 20 discharging at EU ports, today it stands at 21 with seven calling in the EU.

Despite the reduction in operational vessels, the country’s fisheries revenues have grown by 20 percent. A lot of this additional money is attributed to increased vessel licensing fees as well as the levying of hefty fines for non-compliance, but the fleet is also operating more efficiently. At the same time, a national observer program has been implemented and the institutional capacity has been improved, said Vernon.

Out of Africa

Another country to have benefited from the EU’s carding system is the Republic of Ghana. The West African country was yellow carded in November for not implementing effective controls and monitoring systems against IUU activities in its waters. Because of these failings, the region was identified as an attractive place for IUU fishing, and such practices were estimated to be costing the country several million dollars annually.

Ghana is highly dependent on its fisheries resources, producing 440,000 MT of fisheries products per year and generating over USD 1 billion (EUR 906.6 million) in revenue. Furthermore, as many as 2.4 million people take their livelihood directly or indirectly from the industry.

Ghana’s Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development Sherry Ayittey told the IUU forum that the country’s dialogue process with the EC and with the “cooperation and support of industry” enabled it to address these issues and led to the adoption of an ambitious fisheries management plan and the introduction of tough dissuasive sanctions. It received a green card in October last year.

In Ghana, IUU fishing now comes with a penalty of USD 1 million (EUR 906,621) for the first offence and USD 4 million (EUR 3.6 million) for the second offence, she said. It has also implemented effective monitoring systems, including compulsory vessel monitoring system (VMS) for its entire commercial fleet – fishing inside and outside the country’s waters. As such, it has been hailed by the EC as an example for other countries in Africa and beyond to follow.

“Ghana is committed to comprehensive and effective efforts to combat, deter and eliminate IUU fishing, not only within our waters but in the entire Gulf of Guinea region,” said Ayittey.

But she also warned that in the same way that fish have no boundaries, the perpetrators of IUU fishing will take advantage of any international regulatory gaps that they find to continue their illegal operations.


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