FiTI’s Sven Biermann sees transparency as solution to IUU problems
The first country report on fisheries management transparency under the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI) was published in April by the Seychelles, followed by Mauritania’s first report in May. Compiled to the FiTI Standard, the reports offer information on fishery access agreements, as well as other data clarifying the true state of fisheries in a particular country.
FiTI was established in 2017 with the mission of improving the sustainability of global fisheries by increasing transparency in government management of stocks. FiTI is funded by donors and subscriptions from member countries. FiTI Executive Director Sven Biermann spoke with SeafoodSource about the initiative and its progress.
SeafoodSource: Why is the publication of the FiTI country report on the Seychelles important?
Biermann: The first report provides a global model and shows that it can be done. Transparency is sometimes difficult to sell. So other countries that have doubts will see this leading example and hopefully follow. The report raises the profile of the fishery sector in the country. A lot of small-island developing states depend on tourism. The FiTI report shows the importance of fisheries, not just from an economic point of view, but also for employment, the role of women, food, and nutrition. Thus, it demonstrates the crucial importance of fisheries for well-being, and this is often not appreciated.
Markets are also demanding more transparency. For businesses, the continuity of supply is vital. In other words, they need to know they can source for the long term. And for this, they need to have credible information on the management of the fisheries. In the case of the Seychelles, much of the information that the FiTI standard is requesting is available to the authorities, but it has not been proactively published. You basically have to go and ask for it. Publishing this online is very important so that anyone can see what is happening in the sector. And now with Mauritania’s report also being published, it shows that it’s not a one-hit wonder.
SeafoodSource: There have been many political issues within Mauritania over fishery access deals. Is it difficult for Mauritania to gather and publish the required information for a FiTI report?
Biermann: Over the last years, Mauritania’s fisheries sector has been characterized by a lack of transparency on basic information, such as foreign access agreements. But with the publication of its first report, Mauritania made a lot of information publicly available now. For example, Mauritania’s fishery access contracts are already public now on a new website.
SeafoodSource: What has your organization achieved so far?
Biermann: The first achievement was defining the FiTI standard, defining what governments need to publish online and how to do it. But the FiTI is not just about making government publish information, it’s also about the credibility of the information. We have to recognize that in some countries there is a bias about government data. Therefore, in the country’s that are implementing the FiTI – like Seychelles and Mauritania – the annual FiTI reports are not compiled by the FiTI, but by a national multi-stakeholder group. This group consist of an equal number of government, business, and NGO representatives. It’s critical that people use the information. And for this, the information needs to be seen as trustworthy. Otherwise, transparency doesn’t achieve anything. Therefore, both reports are big accomplishments, having been produced with government, business, and civil society at the table.
Furthermore, we have Senegal and Cape Verde already publicly committed to publishing such reports. But it takes time to compile a report, especially given the multi stakeholder process. We see that in a number of countries. In the Seychelles, it took 18 months from the formation of the [stakeholder] group [which compiled the report] to the publication of the report.
SeafoodSource: Why are fishing nations keen to comply with the FiTI standard?
Biermann: It depends on what the country wants to achieve. Some of the countries do it for economic reasons. Also, transparency is increasingly demanded by businesses in the supply chain, development partners, and investors. All want to understand the industry better. What we also see in a number of countries also is the sector is not getting enough appreciation, which means that groups get marginalized, for example artisanal fishers. Transparency is a way to raise the profile of these groups. And with it the political priority and relevance. Lack of transparency has a big impact on shining light on illegal activity and it can act as a deterrence for bad behavior. Information affects behavior.
SeafoodSource: Can you briefly describe the data required in the reports which countries compile, do you set the standards the report must comply with?
Biermann: The FiTI standard sets the information that needs to be published. That does not mean that countries need to have perfect information on all of the 12 transparency requirements [covered by the FiTI standard], as they may not have the funds to gather all such information. But governments need to be transparent about that. They need to state what information is available and what information has not been collected so far. Also, some countries can go beyond the minimum 12 transparency requirements of the FiTI standard.
SeafoodSource: Can you give an example of a new criteria being suggested?
Biermann: There is a lot of demand regarding transparency on FADs [fish aggregating devices], not in the sense of position-based data, but on their governance rules, such as logistics for location and reshoring them. If the demand for such information is increasing, the FiTI International Board might decide to update the FiTI standard over the next two or three years.
SeafoodSource: Do you provide financial assistance to help countries compile their reports?
Biermann: No, we do not provide financial contributions to countries, but we do put them in touch with potential donors. In both cases – the Seychelles and Mauritania – the report compilation has been paid by external donors.
SeafoodSource: Are there instances where secrecy is justified in the signing of fishery access deals?
Biermann: No, not after a deal has been signed. I believe there is no justified reason why the details should not be publicly available. Obviously, there needs to be space of confidentiality during negotiations. Under the FiTI standard, countries that join may have a number of contracts with confidentiality clauses in them. For example, the Seychelles report shows that the country has five such access agreements, allowing foreign vessels to fish in its waters. Two are now publicly available, and two are not due to confidentiality clauses. The government has two more years to make these two publicly available. And the fifth appears not to be a written agreement.
SeafoodSource: Are distant-water fishing companies from, for example, China okay with fishery access deals they have signed in the Seychelles and Mauritania being made public?
Biermann: In the case of Seychelles, one of the currently non-published agreements is with the Taiwanese Deep-sea Tuna Longline Boat Owners and Exporters Association (TTA), and both parties now need to rework this contractual confidentiality clause and make the agreement available. This is a requirement under the FiTI standard, and it is also important to have clarity. The E.U. is criticized a lot for their access agreements, and some of this stems simply from the fact that these agreements are often the only ones that are publicly available. So people can look at them. There is a motivation for governments in making the agreements public in order to fend off rumors or misinformation when the agreement is not public. We need to have discussions that are evidence based.
I have not heard in the Mauritanian case of pushback from China. It’s not that the access agreements are full of information that was unexpected; most agreements follow a template. For instance, the contract with the Chinese Poly-Hong Dong Pelagic Fishery Co shows that the agreement was signed for 25 years and that some of the Chinese vessels are flagged to Mauritania, operating under the national regime.
SeafoodSource: There has been more global attention given recently to the issues of illegal fishing and labor abuse. Does increased attention to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and labor issues help the FiTI do its work?
Biermann: Yes and no. No, in the sense that people seem to focus their attention mostly on the illegal part of IUU fishing. That may be because it is easier for governments to blame rogue actors, fishing in their waters. We need a lot of transparency to counter illegal fishing, for example in the movement of vessels. This is where our colleagues from Global Fishing Watch and others are working on. But ensuring the sustainability of fishing is not just about illegal acts. Not all legal fishing is sustainable. A lot has to do with poor management within governments, which is obviously more difficult to acknowledge. That is why the FiTI standard covers 12 transparency requirements which are needed to answer the question of how sustainable are fisheries in the country. You can’t answer this if you don’t know the stocks, how many boats are licensed and under what conditions, what subsidies they collect, to name just a few examples.
SeafoodSource: What more can key seafood consumption markets like the E.U. and U.S. do to help the FiTI to alleviate corruption in the supply chain?
Biermann: The traditional approach of transparency is that public information is linked to better oversight and then increasing accountability. But we must also position transparency in marine fisheries management as a value-adding approach for countries, in particular by clearly demonstrating socio-economic benefits. And these can come from the actors in the seafood supply chain as well as from investors. As a business, if you invest you want certainty, you want to know that, for instance, your processing plant will be able to operate in 15 or 20 years. That depends significantly if resources will still be there. In other words, if they are well-managed and not overexploited. Transparent and managed stocks create more favorable financial and sourcing conditions. Investing in a country with no data is more difficult and provides a much higher risk. Thus, this is a huge incentive for governments.
Photo courtesy of FiTI/Sven Biermann