Time to tackle IUU fishing head on

Published on
January 5, 2012

Europe’s illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing regulations have certainly hindered the trafficking of illegally caught seafood, but there’s still too much scope for corruption in fisheries.

Just last month, the Nigerian Trawler Operators Association claimed that the country now loses more than USD 70 million (EUR 54 million) annually to the illegal operations of Asian fishing vessels in its waters. Fisheries officials in Tanzania, Ghana and Sierra Leone all made similar complaints about IUU activities last year.

The New Year marked the second anniversary of EU regulation No. 1005/1008, billed by EU Fisheries Minister Maria Damanaki as “a blueprint for zero tolerance against illegal fishing.” The regulation follows the simple principle of undermining illegal fishing activities by removing the opportunity to sell those catches in EU markets. This has been achieved by requiring that every seafood product entering a member state must be accompanied by a catch certificate given by the flag state of the fishing vessel.

According to the European Commission, prior to the introduction of the regulation in January 2010, IUU fishing was the world’s second largest seafood producer, worth approximately EUR 10 billion (USD 13 billion) annually, or 19 percent of the global catch. Of this, it’s estimated that the EU imported EUR 1.1 billion (USD 1.4 billion) of illegal fish every year, or around 16 percent of the EU’s total seafood imports.

Next month in London at the 7th International Forum on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, the Commission will deliver an update on where it is in terms of combating IUU, and its zero tolerance policy should present some positive, headline-making results, particularly now Brussels has started investigating suspected IUU activities carried out by EU nationals and EU vessels.

Looking forward, one of the cornerstones in the war on IUU will be the bilateral agreement between the European and U.S. governments. As the world’s first and third largest seafood importers, respectively, this agreement — signed in September 2011 — will give much stronger international weight to the cause and move the fight a step closer to a worldwide certification system. It’s this that Damanaki feels will bring about fair trade in seafood and ultimately deliver sustainable fisheries worldwide.

Such moves are justly applauded. But there seems to be a growing urgency to take the fight against illegal fishing directly to the most affected areas — the fisheries of developing countries. These are regarded as hotbeds of corruption and the most at risk because they don’t have the capacity to effectively police their own fisheries. 

It’s no coincidence that illegal fishing is at its most rife in the poorer areas of the eastern central Atlantic (FAO Area 34), which extends along the west coast of Africa from Morocco southward to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here, IUU fishing accounts for an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the total catch. 

As a whole, Africa is believed to have the highest rate of illegal fishing in the world, with an estimated annual value of USD 1 billion (EUR 770.2 million). In addition, the thousands of pirate fishing boats currently operating in African waters are indiscriminate in what they catch — as much as 90 percent is dumped back into the sea as fishermen only source the most valuable species.

The illegal catches — the origins of which are virtually untraceable — are then laundered into far-flung overseas markets where the parent fishing companies make a fortune. 

The overriding problem is that for too long African fisheries have been given too little care and attention. But next month’s conference has a session dedicated to tackling IUU fishing in West Africa and many people will be keen to learn what support these countries are now getting, particularly in the wake of the promise made by the European Commission last year to give greater help to developing nations overwhelmed by illegal fishing operations. 

At the same time, the commission said it would review its IUU regulation to try and close any loopholes used by IUU operators, presumably in partnership with U.S. authorities. 

Could 2012 be the year that the world finally gets a grip on pirate fishing — the scourge of responsible, law-abiding fishermen everywhere? Many developing nations hope so.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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