Data noose tightening on “handful” of nations responsible for overfishing

Tony Long is the CEO of Global Fishing Watch, a freely accessible and near real-time digital map of the global ocean aimed at exposing illegal fishing. With Japan, Peru, and Indonesia all recently agreeing to share data with Global Fishing Watch as part of an effort to combat illegal fishing, Long is now pushing for more countries to contribute data. Additionally, Long’s office is working with governments and NGOs to make the Global Fishing Watch map more complete and allow the tracking of vessels guilty of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. 

SeafoodSource: How important are the ongoing World Trade Organization negotiations on eliminating fishing and fuel subsidies in the fight against IUU fishing?

Long: Cutting or eliminating fuel subsidies are an important fisheries management measure because … fuel subsidies are part of the overcapacity equation – especially for distance fleets and also high-seas fishing. People following the negotiations closely tell me that there are disagreements within the WTO as to whether this is the case. It is vital that this matter can be resolved during the negotiations.

SeafoodSource: You point to a “handful of wealthy countries” as being culpable in IUU fishing. Is this a corporate or a government problem?

Long: It's both, but ultimately, governments are the ones that allow IUU fishing practices in their fleets to continue. There are many factors beyond harmful subsidies, including weak penalties, poor enforcement and licensing flags of convenience that allow IUU fishing to occur. That said, individual corporations also have huge responsibility. In particular, they can help drive out practices such as bonded labor and slavery at sea, they can demand cleared provenance to their catch by demanding complete and proper tracking of vessels, catch documentation and open licensing as part of their contract with the supply chain. The recent green card given to Thailand is a good example of government, corporations, and NGOs working together to improve a dire situation.

SeafoodSource: According to an article in Science Advances, “On the high seas, 97 percent of all such fishing effort detectable by AIS is conducted by vessels flagged to higher-income nations. Dominance of this high-seas industrial fishing effort at the level of flag nation was highly uneven. The vast majority (86 percent) of this effort can be attributed to only five higher-income countries/entities, in rank order high to low: China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Spain.” Have rich countries also been willing to work with you and to share information?

Long: We have a [memorandum of understanding] signed with Japan to improve research and understanding of IUU fishing in the North Pacific and share data. We have staff in Korea and Taiwan to take forward the benefits of transparency. [And] we are in the very early stages of working with a coalition of European Union-based NGOs to look at the E.U. fleet and coastal states where [those vessels] fish. We are engaging with NGOs and foundations interested in China in order to identify a strategy on working with China.

SeafoodSource: How important is traceability at the retail level?

Long: To deal with IUU fishing, the solution will be a comprehensive one, in the sense that it needs various tools to be used in unison. Traceability at the retail/consumer level will continue to evolve into a credible and useful method of driving better understanding of what is being traded. At this level, I think that work on identifying seafood fraud, the intentional mis-selling or mis-labeling of seafood, is an interesting area. I do see a point in the future where a consumer can be much surer of what they are buying, who caught it and where.

SeafoodSource: Are developing countries – often victims of overfishing – keen to cooperate with you? Do they have any data or capacity to share with you?

Long: Yes, they are, and this is an important factor for us. For any country, transparency is crucial for good stewardship of our global ocean – to fight illegal fishing, to protect fish stocks and livelihoods, and to increase the safety and well-being of fishers. 

From the perspective of countries with fewer resource to dedicate to fighting IUU fishing, transparency is a “surveillance multiplier.” If countries publicly share their fishing vessel monitoring data, then we can create a more complete and connected picture of global fishing activity. Law-abiding fishers are tracked easily and openly, demonstrating their compliance. Rogue operators stand out due to their patchy track record or suspicious behaviour. Compliant fishers can be rewarded through faster, more efficient port entry and landings. Unauthorized vessels, and those that have a history of non-compliance, can be prioritized for inspection or even denied port entry. By embracing transparency, nations have a more cost-effective way of monitoring vessels that puts the burden on fishers to demonstrate compliance rather than on the country to prove illegality.

SeafoodSource: What’s your biggest goal for 2019?

Long: To bring more countries onto the transparency program and place real momentum behind the paradigm shift that we are seeing emerge. Our priorities start with Costa Rica, Panama, and Namibia, all of which have made public commitments to transparency through Global Fishing Watch. We can expect more countries to join the public data movement – for example, Chile’s recent announcement was exciting news.

We also want to put our new global Data and Analysis Cell “on the map.” This cell will have global reach to collect, analyze, and publicly display data on commercial fishing activity. The new cell will stand up in early 2019 and support under-resourced countries with data and analysis to help improve governance of fisheries and monitoring of marine protected areas. It is funded for the next four years and is an open and collaborative cell, working with agencies already established or with regional expertise, and will accept secondees or financial support from agencies willing to contribute to expanding the capacity of this cell for the common good.

SeafoodSource: Screenshots of your data maps are now appearing on some Chinese government and seafood industry websites lately. How much interest do you get from governments like China, which doesn’t share its data on Global Fishing Watch like Indonesia does, or the European Union or United States, in assisting their own enforcement efforts?

Long: I have also had reports of government agencies using Global Fishing Watch but I have not followed up in any way. From my point of view, it isn’t unexpected because the platform is very easy to access and presents the data in an easy to understand way. The additional data layers, all on one platform, is an attractive mechanism for staff to be able to demonstrate issues around fishing and transhipment. I am pleased to hear more evidence of this happening.

SeafoodSource: Has Indonesia benefitted from its decision to share its data on Global Fishing Watch?

Long: A direct benefit for Indonesia of sharing its data is that we were able to estimate the economic and ecological benefits of their IUU policies, showing that if strong enforcement continues and local fishing is managed right, Indonesia can increase the profits, harvest, and biomass of their local fisheries. [But] I believe the biggest benefit is more long-term – by opening the data, they have inspired others to do the same and established a higher expectation of data sharing between nations. This global data sharing will have the largest impact on the understanding of who is fishing where, deter poor practices, improve compliance and, ultimately, help sustainable practices become the norm.

SeafoodSource: Several Chinese fishing firms have deals with countries, including Ghana, where they set up local companies and in essence operate vessels under the local flag. This allows China to expand its international fleet, which it says it will be capped at 3,000 vessels, as these won't be counted as Chinese vessels. Does this complicate the fight against IUU fishing?

Long: From my perspective, this sort of practice does complicate matters. It is another practice that make clear the need for transparency in fisheries as it could easily be construed as a clear effort to circumvent the system.

SeafoodSource: The European Union, as one of the world’s largest seafood buyers, has used its “yellow card” system on countries like Thailand and Vietnam in order to spur them to take action on IUU and labor issues. But could or would the E.U. use such as approach on China, as has been suggested in debates in the E.U. Parliament? Or is China just too big of an economic player?

Long: It is of course possible that the E.U. could use its carding process in regard to China, but most [E.U. NGOs] would probably take the view that it would not secure the positive desired outcome that has happened in other carding scenarios. The E.U. has shown outstanding leadership in its fisheries diplomacy and the use of [its] IUU fishing regulation, but we must recognize that it has limits.


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