High-seas illegal fishing thwarted by catch documentation schemes

The latest technical paper on catch documentation schemes from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), discusses how such schemes benefit, or could benefit, deep-sea fisheries by protecting them from illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. 

The paper’s author, Giles Hosch, found in his research that catch documentation schemes (CDS) are a useful tool for addressing the IUU fishing practices known to take place in deep-sea fisheries, in the areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ).

Catch documentation schemes are a trade-based measure with the purpose of denying market access to fisheries products that have been obtained illegally. They facilitate the tracking and tracing of fish from the point of capture, through unloading and onwards through the supply chain. 

The sustainable use of deep-sea fisheries has been under scrutiny by international organizations, including the United Nations General Assembly, for more than two decades. Concern largely relates to the limited amount of information and knowledge available about deep-sea ecosystems, the species and stocks targeted by fishing fleets within these ecosystems, and the adverse impacts that deep-sea fishing operations may have on these.  

Hosch’s paper, “Catch documentation schemes for deep-sea fisheries in the ABNJ; Their value, and options for implementation,” finds that as a stand-alone tool, a CDS can effectively deter and eliminate IUU fishing by denying legal market access for products harvested by vessels fishing without a license, vessels misreporting their catches to get around TAC and quota allocations, vessel not complying with reporting obligations, and vessels not complying with  operational obligations tied into a CDS, such as only landing in designated ports or carrying VMS.

In combination with VMS, a CDS becomes an even more powerful tool, adding detection of non-compliance with days-at-sea limitations, non-compliance with temporal and spatial fishing closures, and non-compliance with trans-shipment rules to the list of illegal fishing activities that can be identified and deterred.

“A CDS strengthens the power of responsible port, processing and end-market states to apply stringent control measures. It also means that less responsible states who have facilitated the monetization of IUU-derived products, must exact due diligence in order for products to continue along the supply chain,” Hosch said.

According to the FAO, IUU fishing continues to be one of the greatest threats to marine ecosystems, due to its ability to undermine efforts to manage fisheries sustainably and to conserve marine biodiversity. Developing countries lacking the capacity and resources for effective monitoring, control, and surveillance are especially at risk.  

IUU fishing affects all stages of the capture and utilization of fish. It is associated with organized crime and forced labor, and puts financiers of fishing and processing operations at risk from serious damage to reputation. Where overfishing leads to the collapse of local small-scale fisheries, livelihoods are put at risk, which exacerbates poverty and worsens food insecurity. In addition, products derived from IUU fishing find their way into overseas trade markets, competing with local food supply. Urgent efforts to eliminate IUU fishing are therefore ongoing. 

The focus of the paper is to determine how relevant or how valuable properly-designed catch documentation schemes would be in the context of deep sea fisheries, and how they could be applied in order to operate effectively and make substantive contributions to sustainable fisheries management. 

It summarizes the catch documentation schemes currently in existence and discusses their use when applied to deep-sea fisheries. It also provides an overview of deep-sea fisheries and their associated ecosystems, and sets out the terms of the 2008 FAO International Guidelines for the Management of Deep-sea Fisheries in the High Seas.

Hosch also engages in an examination of the 2017 FAO Voluntary Guidelines for CDS, and levies an assessment of the benefits and limitations of unilateral and multilateral CDS approaches, along with their use with other monitoring, control, and surveillance tools, to combat IUU fishing in deep-sea fisheries. 

Hosch argues that the way in which existing standard multilateral catch documentation schemes are implemented is inadequate to protect deep-sea fisheries. This is in part because the geographical distribution of the vast majority of commercially important species span areas managed by different regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) that operate according to different rules and standards. This could mean that the same species can traded without CDS certificates when caught from one set of fishing grounds, but has to be covered by certificates when originating from the jurisdiction of another RFMO.  

Hosch said a single, consistent, and harmonized global approach, in the form of a super-CDS scheme covering wide-ranging resources, is the only viable long-term option to progress. Hosch calls for an international body to study the option and to come up with a broad blueprint for a unified electronic system. This would need to include design, functions, capabilities, development, roll-out, operation, legal nature and funding.

Photo courtesy of FAO/Sergei Gapon


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