UN Special Envoy for the Ocean: We can’t let COVID-19 widen the door for IUU fishing

Published on
May 26, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new considerations with regards to social distancing and travel restrictions, and these have had a significant impact on the monitoring, control, and surveillance of fisheries activities.

This is a particular worry for developing countries that are vulnerable to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and there’s evidence that these conditions – with fewer active inspectors and observers – are being exploited by unscrupulous operators, according to the U.N. Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, Ambassador Peter Thomson.

Delivering the opening keynote speech at Chatham House’s 12th International Forum on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing, Thomson acknowledged that every stage of the fisheries and aquaculture supply chain is susceptible to disruptions caused by the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. Those include reduced harvests, many fishers and producers unable to work, changing consumer demand amid concerns about food safety, and market access and logistics problems related to transportation and border restrictions.

“In all of these concerns, we must bring realistic solutions to bear,” Thomson said. “Lockdowns have also resulted in reduced capacity for effective monitoring and control and surveillance of capture fishing operations. Some fishers who are able to continue their activities know this, and there is a risk that they may adapt their operations to engage in illegal activities.”

Thomson added that vigilance is also called for in international fisheries and with shared stocks where a lack of monitoring and enforcement may lead some fishers “to revert to less-responsible practices.”

To reduce the risks associated with relaxed observer and transshipment regulations, and the reduced monitoring and surveillance, Thomson told the conference that governments must be called upon to prioritize the strengthening of port states measures, specifically on the control of port-based transshipment and landing. Likewise, he insisted flag states which have secured relaxed regulations from the regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) during the pandemic need to prioritize electronic vessel monitoring and reporting, including the broadcasting of automatic identification system (AIS) data.

They must also support a high standard of port state measures implementation both domestically and at foreign ports where their vessels are landing or transshipping catches, he said.

Ocean goal progress

The U.N. ambassador also commented on the mixed progress made in implementing the targets of the U.N.’s ocean goal, Sustainable Development Goal 14, that directly relates to IUU fishing, and SDG 14.4 and 14.6, both of which mature this year.

SDG 14.4 sets the requirement to effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, IUU, and other destructive fishing practices. It also requires implementation of science-based management plans that restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible. Thomson said a clearer indication of how much progress has been made in this regard will come next month when the FAO presents its biannual State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture  report, although this will present statistics up to 2018 and those for 2020 won’t be available until 2022.

“The 2018 SOFIA report is where we learned that 33 percent of global fish stocks are being harvested beyond biologically sustainable levels. I for one am not holding my breath on the global overfishing situation having changed much from that percentage. However, I do think it’s fair to say that there have been some very good advances on the curtailment of IUU fishing through the efforts of member states and RFMOs – thanks especially to the FAO’s Ports State Measures Agreement (PSMA) and related work,” Thomson said.

Those efforts, he added, while not yet able to stamp out IUU, have been valuable in gathering information about what is needed to do so.

“We now have most of the knowledge and fisheries management experience required to reverse the longstanding disappointing trends on overfishing. FAO has found that where fisheries are intensively managed, stocks are consistently above target levels or are rebuilding. It has also determined that where political will for prioritizing sustainable fisheries management is present, and where there is meaningful involvement of local communities in ecosystem management efforts, the tide can be turned on threatened marine resources, on rebuilding the depleted stocks, and the restoration of degraded habitats. FAO is adamant that management is the best conservation,” Thomson said. “It’s not unreasonable to find cause for optimism. Do the right things with the right level of effort and we can achieve SDG 14.4 in due course.”

Better progress has however been made with SDG 14.6, which seeks to address the removal of harmful fisheries subsidies, said Thompson. He suggested that the target “is eminently achievable” before the end of this year, thanks to a lot more political will being demonstrated by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

To build on this momentum, he recently wrote to “42 positively-inclined WTO-accredited ambassadors” who are directly involved in these negotiations urging them to “redouble efforts” to ensure that new disciplines on fisheries subsidies are adopted at the WTO General Council in December.

Escalating the war on IUU

Enhancing transparency, promoting cooperation, and improving compliance with international agreements, are crucial next steps in the fight against IUU fishing, Thomson told the conference.

He explained that while a comprehensive framework of international instruments has been developed that can help to combat IUU fishing, he stressed that they are “only as good as their effective implementation”, and as such, governments need to demonstrate their political will to effectively apply and comply with them.

“Strong monitoring, control and surveillance capacity, including the use of innovative technological capacity, together with effective enforcement are essential in promoting and improving compliance with conservation and management measures,” he said.

With regards to elevating transparency levels, the digitalization of information on both fishing and fishing related activities, and real-time global information exchanges are now “indispensable in the battle against IUU fishing,” he said, insisting that transparency must also shed light on operations taking place throughout the entire supply chain – “to expose operations carried out under weak controls such as illegal or uncontrolled transshipments at sea.”

Last but not least, the ambassador insisted that cooperation is key, encompassing inter-agency coordination at a national level, bilateral and multilateral cooperation at regional levels, and cooperation at global level to implement international agreements.

Furthermore, the commitment to cooperation must go beyond the realm of fisheries management into the associated areas of safety, working conditions, pollution, human trafficking, the smuggling of illicit products and other crimes, he added.

The FAO estimates that IUU fishing represents one-in-five fish caught globally or up to 26 million metric tons (MT) valued at between USD 10 and 23 billion (EUR 9.1 to 21 billion). In the coastal waters of developing countries, it’s believed that IUU fishing accounts for as much as one-in-three fish caught.

“The onus is on all of us during these challenging times to keep the focus on IUU fishing. We do not want to be the receivers of stolen goods; thus we must work in cooperation – with compliance and transparency as our hallmarks,” Thomson said. “The seafood sector, governments, regional entities, flag states, FAO, consumers – we are all part of the solution. We must keep to the track we have set ourselves. And yes, I firmly believe the day will come when IIU fishing will be but a scourge of the past.” 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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