IUU-fighting Port State Measures Agreement will be a game changer

Published on
May 18, 2016

The Port State Measures Agreement will officially go into effect on 5 June, after it breezed past the minimum requirement of 25 countries pledged to adhere to the treaty this week.

Dominica, Guinea-Bissau, Sudan, Thailand, Tonga and Vanuatu have upped the total number of countries that have acceded the treaty to 30, adding some surprising names to the list of countries that have committed themselves to the world’s leading weapon in combatting illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

The treaty requires signees to commit to more stringent oversight of the vessels that enter their ports and offload seafood. It gives them authority and justification for refusing ships known to participate in IUU fishing. It will also increase information-sharing and communication between different nations, which will be a huge step forward in the fight against IUU.

Senior representatives of environmental groups I talked to over the past few days, who have been advocating for the Port States Measures Agreement (PSMA) for years, were ecstatic about the news that the treaty had surpassed the threshold needed for it to go into effect.

“It’s model legislation to make sure all participating countries have the right laws in place so they can more quickly and easily recognize illegal fish coming into their ports and have the power, training methods to take effective action,” Michele Kuruc, the vice president of oceans policy for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), told me.

The PSMA is notable in that it goes further – and into more detail – than most international treaties in its stipulation on information-gathering and-sharing between member countries. According to Kuruc, two forms required by the treaty will make a big difference. The first must be completed by any vessel wishing to come into port, and must list registration details, fishing licenses, catch totals, types and origins and what it intends to offload. When received by port officials, it is then evaluated for validity, and they have the option to contact the vessel’s flag state and ask for verification.

“This new process gives the port state better evaluation techniques as it considers whether to accept fishing boats into their harbors or turn them away,” Kuruc said. “Port states are looking to make sure their role in the supply chain stays clean. Vessels are picking their ports for a reason, whether its good facilities, access to an airport. If they have to travel further to another port, it increases their costs – paying for fuel, crew, perishables lost. That financial pressure is an excellent deterrent to IUU fishing.”

If a flag state doesn’t respond in a timely manner to a request from a port state for more information on a vessel, that can be a factor in a port state turning a vessel away, Kuruc said.

“It’s an important mechanism of the treaty. It will help pressure flag states to get that information to the port states, to allow its fleet to get on with its business,” she said. “That interrelation will get countries to put pressure on each other.”

The second important form is an inspection document, completed after the vessel’s arrival in port.

“The inspectors document everything. They look at the vessel-monitoring system, the captain’s logbook, they get statements from the crew, and they check to make sure it corresponds to the information the vessel gave when it sought entry into port,” Kuruc said.

I wondered how countries with different languages would communicate, but Kuruc told me all PSMA forms will appear in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese and Russian, which should cover most of the world.

I also questioned how poorer countries would pay for all the infrastructure, training and other costs associated with implementing the treaty. Kuruc said that issue is addressed in Article 21 of the treaty, which creates a monetary fund to which richer countries and institutions donors can contribute and help defray costs for poorer countries, with the treaty’s arbiter, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, providing oversight.

“I don’t think the financial side will be a big issue,” Kuruc told me. “There is tremendous interest in the NGO community to do a lot of things to try to encourage and help countries, whether it’s with technical assistance, piloting, funding … We want to help these countries come along as quickly as possible. Many of these countries have serious IUU problems, and it’s great that they acknowledge it and want to be in on the ground up to help solve the problem.”

Joe Zelasney, the manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Ending Illegal Fishing Project, was also thrilled about the activation of the PSMA, and said he was particularly impressed by the countries with known IUU problems that have signed on.

“Symbolically, it’s very significant countries like South Korea and Thailand have joined PSMA,” Zelasney said. “Here are two countries have had fingers pointed at them by the international community in regard to IUU fishing, and they’ve gone ahead and shown they’re taking their problems seriously.”

Zelasney pointed out that the problems the two countries have dealt with – South Korea has been accused of not properly controlling its fleet or fully following its obligations as a flag state, while Thailand has issues with human trafficking and labor abuses – “gives a good picture of the breadth and scope of the variety of problems that compose IUU fishing.

“It’s a big, nuanced and complex issue,” he said.

Which means having just 30 signatories (see the full list here: http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/multimedia/data-visualizations/2014/psma) on a treaty that only deals with one aspect of IUU fishing is not going to solve the problems by itself. It will still be far too easy for bad actors to avoid ports following PSMA guidelines, and for miscreant flag states to collect registration fees from IUU vessels while turning a blind eye to their conduct at sea. There also needs to be more pressure brought to bear on market states in screening the seafood that come across their borders, and on retailers and consumers, who need to play their part in scrutinizing the products they buy.

But there’s no doubt that the PSMA is a huge deal, both in real terms and symbolically. Both Kuruc and Zelasney said they’re confident more countries will sign the treaty in the coming months and years.

“Transparency of information breeds self-correcting behavior,” Zelasney said. “When everybody knows who’s breaking the rules and where boats are trying to land illegally-caught fish, it will be harder for states to turn a blind eye, because they’ll end up with people asking hard questions and taking a close look at what they’re doing.”

It’s not just out of fear of getting caught that they’ll join, either, Kuruc said.

“The world is getting much more savvy,” she said. “World leaders realize that in order to continue to feed their people and keep their economies in good shape, they need to play a role in keeping the ocean’s fisheries viable.”

As if hearing her words, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement on Tuesday, 17 May calling the PSMA’s activation a “turning point.”

“We will welcome the Port State Measures Agreement as a new weapon in our arsenal designed to fight IUU and to further protect our ocean, while we continue to urge other countries around the world to join and implement it,” he said.

National Fisheries Institute President John Connelly soon followed with a statement of his own:

“This week’s international approval of the ground-breaking Port State Measures Agreement puts yet another arrow in the quiver of regulators who are fighting Illegal Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing,” he said. “Along with the Magnuson Stevens Act and the Lacy Act this pact completes a regulatory triumvirate that affords the Administration broad powers to police, prevent and crack down on illegal fishing and seafood fraud. Whether it’s denying entry, inspecting vessels or sharing information regionally and globally, Port State Measures will serve as yet another effective tool to address the challenge of IUU fishing.”

Not that I think the PSMA is a panacea, but anytime you can get the U.S. government, the NFI, the NGO community and a substantial number of other countries to agree on anything seafood-related – especially something as important to the responsible management of the world’s fisheries as the PSMA – that’s a victory in my book.


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