Stimson Center’s Sally Yozell: RFMOs, China must do more to fight IUU

Some of the key global instruments to fight illegal fishing are under-resourced and underperforming, according to Sally Yozell, director of the environmental security program at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C., U.S.A.-based think-tank. Previously a senior adviser to former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Yozell was instrumental in starting the Our Ocean Conference. In her role at the Stimson Center, Yozell focuses on ocean security, climate security, and wildlife protection. Her recommendations on reducing global illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing included in the drafting of the Maritime Security and Enforcement Act, which entered into U.S. law in December.

Through her recent work in co-authoring the Stimson Center report, “Shining a Light,” Yozell took a close look at illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the Chinese fleet. In an interview, she answered questions from SeafoodSource on how the fight against IUU can be better resourced and how Chinese authorities and the insurance industry can play a bigger role in that fight.

SeafoodSource: Regarding regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs), how are they doing currently in terms of non-compliance?

Yozell: RFMOs [Regional Fishery Management Organisations] have the potential to form one of the most important building blocks of fisheries management for the high seas – if they utilize best management practices. Their strength relies on its ability to collect accurate data and enforce compliance from its member-states and other nations operating in the water of its member-states. RFMOs are structured very differently across the board in terms of which species they focus on, the geographic area they cover, competences and authorities which govern them, and whether the managed catch levels they oversee will actually lead to sustainable fish stocks and prevent overfishing. In general, RFMOs have limited authority and audit capacity to ensure their members are compliant with fishery management regimes and that the data they collect is accurate. RFMO member-states determine the management strategies and are guided by a desire to access fishery resources. Discussions of catch level and methods to limit catch often turn political, leading to catch levels much higher than sustainable levels and restriction schemes that can prompt overfishing. By and large, a few RFMOs are good at the monitoring and enforcement of noncompliance like ICCAT [International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas].

Some are trying, like IOTC [Indian Ocean Tuan Commission], and others have significant challenges like WCPFC [Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission]. In our field research, we noted improvements are needed to strengthen the IOTC. It is hampered by debates between coastal countries and fishing countries over quota allocations, which can prevent effective outcomes. Like many RFMOs, the IOTC Secretariat lacks authority to ensure compliance and impose sanctions. Often the data submitted to the compliance committee by IOTC member-states is incomplete and not up to the standards set by the RFMO. In our research we also found that Secretariat staff are aware of compliance issues with member-states, but do not have the authority to increase accountability and can only provide guidance. All five of the tuna RFMOs have processes to assess compliance, but their mechanisms, ability to take corrective action, and procedural transparency vary greatly. A recent comparative study on RFMO compliance mechanisms showed that the ICCAT is empowered to take restrictive measures for noncompliance, but it rarely does.

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission [WCPFC] has a detailed compliance mechanism, but it is an opaque system. The WCPFC’s compliance and monitoring process is not made available to the general public or to accredited members of the NGO community. Documents generated are not made publicly available. This includes draft, provisional, or final compliance monitoring reports, the WCPFC’s Technical and Compliance Committee’s provisional compliance score or assessment, capacity development plans, and responses by member-states receiving compliance reports. Working groups convened about compliance incidents are closed to outside observers.

Further, while the final compliance monitoring report includes the specific area of noncompliance by the member-state and whether the noncompliance has been noted for more than one year, it does not include any recommendations for any corrective action needed. The WCPFC has not yet developed a range of responses to noncompliance that would be applied through, and complement, their compliance monitoring procedures. To be effective regional bodies, RFMOs need to improve their practices by strengthening their ability to: collect accurate data, determine if catch quotas are being set at sustainable levels, and enhance their capability to monitor member-state compliance in data reporting and catch documentation. In addition to these tools, RFMOs need effective enforcement measures when noncompliance is found. This will require reform at each individual RFMO.

SeafoodSource: You recommend that coastal states should reinvest half of the earnings from access agreements into enforcement. How realistic is that, given the basic needs of many of these countries? Should entities like the European Union insist on such investment in its access deals with third parties like Morocco and Mauritania?

Yozell: This is not unrealistic, given how central the fishing industry is and the importance of fish as the primary protein across many coastal developing states. Coastal countries targeted by distant-water fishery (DWF) fleets often the lack capacity to monitor and protect themselves against IUU fishing, which creates a cycle where countries are robbed of potential revenue that could instead be dedicated to fisheries management. As fisheries are degraded, coastal communities suffer as their livelihoods and food security is eroded, and DWF fleets can also move beyond their initial target deep-water fish to target fish stocks closer to shore that are relied upon by artisanal fishing. Globally, 1.3 billion people rely on fish as their primary protein, including many in developing states where DWF fleets operate such as an estimated 200 million across Sub-Saharan Africa. The E.U. already takes this into account through its sustainable fisheries partnership agreements, although extent of the investment depends on the agreement.

The E.U.-Morocco agreement does stipulate that funds from the agreement are dedicated to fisheries management. The first protocol put aside EUR 13.5 million (USD ) out of EUR 36.1 million (USD ). The E.U.-Mauritania agreement is the most comprehensive E.U. fishery agreement, covering a wide range of fish stocks. The E.U. pays Mauritania EUR 59.125 million (USD 53.76 million) per year – EUR 55 million (USD 50 million) for the total allowable catches and EUR 4.125 million (USD 3.75 million) to support the development of Mauritania’s sector-specific fisheries policy. However, both of these agreements have been criticized, as the E.U. has been accused of exploiting the waters of developing nations while not investing enough into local fishing capacity, enforcement, and traceability. This could be improved. Although a novel approach for access agreements, in the United States, NOAA Fisheries has used cost recovery fees to support data collection and management in several Alaska fisheries for example, and across America sport fishing and hunting license fees have been collected to support wildlife management and conservation for decades. 

SeafoodSource: Under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese fishing companies have built numerous fishing ports in developing countries. Recently, several U.S. non-governmental organizations have signed on to China’s effort to “Green the BRI,” citing the potential to influence China’s developmental policy and conserve ocean environments. Do you expect they’ll have an impact?

Yozell: Our research has uncovered that China has the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet. China has an opportunity to provide leadership in making the fishing industry sustainable through embracing transparency across the seafood supply chain. By elevating ocean management issues to the Green BRI, China can take significant positive steps in the fight against IUU fishing. Transparency should be the social license for any industry in the 21st century, and China can drive this dialogue between flag states, coastal nations, and the industry itself. As you can see, one of our key recommendations in “Shining a Light” is to elevate ocean management and IUU fishing to the Green BRI. Recent evidence suggests that China is moving towards greater transparency in its global fishing operations. For example, in October, China was one of 48 countries to sign the Torremolinos Declaration, which denounces IUU fishing and indicates China’s intent to ratify the 2012 Cape Town Agreement to promote vessel safety, regular inspections, and mandatory radio communicators to increase transparency. Over the last year, China has shown a willingness to crack down on distant-water fishing vessels and companies caught engaging in IUU fishing by levying penalties, reducing subsidies to these companies, and blacklisting IUU fishing boats and captains. China has also pledged to cap the size of its distant-water fleet. These positive reforms could be further expanded by ending harmful capacity-enhancing subsidies altogether, which drive overcapacity and overfishing, and ratifying the Port State Measures Agreement to block distant-water fleets from using Chinese ports to offload IUU catch. China has already expanded its vessel monitoring by mandating the use of tracking technology such as automatic identification systems and vessel monitoring systems on its vessels, but it would be helpful to ensure AIS and VMS are used on all distant-water and transshipment vessels at all times.

SeafoodSource: The Stimson Center advocates for traceability in seafood markets. Do you think developing markets have the capacity to install the kind of traceability systems required? And as the big emerging market for seafood, does China have the know-how to increase traceability?

Yozell: Traceability is critical to ensure a sustainable future for our oceans. However, developing countries do not always have the capacity to ensure traceability. We recently conducted a study on the implementation of the US SIMP [Seafood Import Monitoring Program] in four countries: Indonesia, Chile, Peru, and Mexico. Our analysis identified that initial catch aggregation points and documentation requirements for small-scale fisheries are among the primary challenges for SIMP implementation. SIMP relies on the importer of record (the importing company, not the importing state) to verify accurate catch documentation, shipment records, and processing and storage records. NOAA, the agency that monitors and implements SIMP, is not empowered to investigate the documentation further. Our report found a lack of human, financial, and technical capacity exists across the seafood supply chain to verify compliance. Our research also revealed that the falsification of documents by middlemen is common. A byproduct of falsified records is that illegally caught fish can be laundered through the system. The U.S. government should support capacity-building efforts and technical workshops with foreign governments and importers to clarify aspects of SIMP and improve fisheries enforcement, monitoring, and compliance to support SIMP. In addition, the wider creation and adoption of electronic and digital traceability systems rather than the commonly-used paper documentation, would improve transparency and expand traceability.

That being said, the fishing industry is big business around the world. And like most industries consumers deserve to know that their fish is safe to eat and sustainably harvested. And honest fishers who abide by the rules should not have to compete with those who don’t. Both the industry and governments should work together to develop the resources, technology, and capacity needed to implement robust import controls and traceability systems across the seafood supply chain. The U.S. SIMP program and the E.U. Fisheries Control System represent significant progress in enhancing and ensuring transparency across the seafood industry. Additionally, Japan overhauled its post-World War II-era fisheries law last year to protect and sustainably manage overfished stocks in domestic waters, and may be developing a seafood import traceability program similar to SIMP or the E.U. traceability measures in the future. If the U.S. expands SIMP to cover more species, and Japan moves to adopt a traceability program, that will mean that three out of the five top importing jurisdictions [E.U., U.S., Japan, China, and South Korea] will have documentation standards for imported seafood across the supply chain. China could follow these efforts, noting best practices and establish a comparative traceability system. China has the technical capacity to adopt traceability standards for imported seafood and for seafood exports caught with Chinese-owned vessels, and its recent positive steps towards penalizing IUU vessels and captains show that their political will to take action may be increasing.

SeafoodSource: Do you believe China’s government has the will but lacks know-how on management of its distant-water fleet?

Yozell: The policy tools and technology exist to better manage distant-water fishing. Transparency must be the social license for any global fishing operation in the 21st century. Like any flag state, China could mandate that all fishing and trans-shipment vessels operate VMS and AIS systems at all times and make that information publicly available. They could move to electronic catch monitoring and digitize landing documents while ending harmful capacity-enhancing fuel subsidies that allow larger ships to fish longer and catch more. In China, there is a significant political dimension to DWF activity which enhances their economic and food security. Distant-water fleets bolster the BRI, as discussed above, and the fleets and fish processing facilities provide jobs and satisfy domestic demand for seafood. Beyond fuel subsidies, Chinese provinces subsidize distant-water vessel construction as well. As noted above, China has taken steps towards showing its political will to take action against IUU fishing and increase transparency, by signing the Torremolinos Declaration and noting its intent to ratify the Cape Town Agreement to promote vessel safety, regular inspections, and mandatory radio communicators to increase transparency. However, numerous reports have noted how difficult it can be to determine the beneficial owner of fishing vessels and China uses joint ventures with coastal nations to obscure the true ownership and operation of many foreign vessels. The political will to address IUU fishing has increased in some areas of the industry, as seen by its recent crackdown and blacklisting of distant-water fishing vessels and captains caught engaging in IUU fishing. By denying crucial subsidies to those ships and captains, it can make distant-water fishing economically unviable. Further, China has pledged to cap the size of its distant-water fleet, though only after the fleet has been modernized and vessel capacity expanded.

SeafoodSource: Has the maritime insurance industry been making any moves to demand greater transparency from distant-water fishing operators, as you suggest it should?

Yozell: Yes, the maritime insurance industry has started to take action to demand greater transparency from DWF operators. In 2017, a coalition of major insurance firms agreed to crack down on IUU fishing by banning coverage on ships listed by the E.U. as engaging in IUU fishing. As of June 2019, more than 30 insurance firms have signed up to this initiative, including AXA, Allianz, Generali, and the Hanseatic Underwriters. The United Nations Environment’s Principles for Sustainable Insurance Initiative is the largest collaborative initiative between the United Nations and the insurance industry, and it facilitated the development of the innovative principles to tackle IUU fishing on a global scale by allowing insurers to support efforts that can help reduce and ultimately eliminate IUU fishing. This pioneering initiative was launched at the 2017 Our Ocean Conference in Malta. However, more needs to be done to ensure that these steps are followed by concrete action.

Photo courtesy of Stimson Center


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