Vietnam optimistic about lifting of European yellow card as last inspection nears

Vietnam is pushing to implement recommendations from the European Commission in advance of a new round of inspections that the country’s leaders hope will lead to the elimination of a warning label it received from the commission last year.

The E.C. issued a “yellow card” to Vietnam in October 2017, warning the Pacific country it could ban its seafood exports entirely unless Hanoi did more to tackle illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The commission's carding system is the European Union's main tool in the fight against illegal fishing. It encourages countries to work with the commission to improve their fisheries governance and retain access to E.U. markets. A “red card” from the E.C. results in a complete ban on access to European markets.

In its yellow card warning to Vietnam, the E.C. stipulated that Vietnam enact nine recommendations to have the designation lifted. Those included including revising its legal framework to ensure compliance with international and regional rules applicable to the conservation and management of fisheries resources; ensuring the effective implementation and enforcement of the country’s revised laws; increasing the traceability of its seafood products; preventing sales of IUU products; and strengthening the effective implementation of international rules and management measures.  

Inspectors from the E.C. are expected to visit Vietnam in January 2019 for the last check before the bloc makes final decision on whether to lift the yellow card. A first round of inspections in May 2018 resulted in a six-month extension of the yellow card after a number of shortcomings in implementation of the recommendations were found. A second round took place in November.

SeafoodSource did not receive a response to a request for comment on the status of Vietnam’s yellow card or the upcoming inspection.

Representatives from Vietnam’s Fisheries General Department, Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP), Vietnam Fisheries Society, and Binh Dinh Province interviewed by SeafoodSource all said they believed they had enacted reforms sufficient to earn a favorable decision from the E.C.

“We have tried our best to implement recommendations from the E.C. Given our responsible efforts in combating IUU, we hope the yellow card will be lifted. But the final decision is up to the E.C. to make,” Nguyen Quang Hung, deputy director of Vietnam’s Fisheries General Department, told SeafoodSource in a meeting in Hanoi. 

Cao Thi Kim Lan, Director of the Binh Dinh Fishery Joint Stock Company (Bidifisco), headquartered in the central province of Binh Dinh, said a red card would be a “disaster” for local exporters the E.U.’s decision could lead other seafood importers to follow Europe’s lead and ban Vietnamese products. But like Hung, she expected the yellow card will be removed shortly. 

Bidifisco, the seventh-largest tuna processor in Vietnam, plans to export seafood products worth up to USD 65 million (EUR 57.2 million) this year, up 4.8 percent year-on-year. Currently, the E.U. accounts for about half the company’s total exports in value, with about 70 percent of its product mix consisting of tuna.

Between January and October 2018, Vietnam exported tuna products worth USD 136 million (EUR 120 million) to the E.U., up 18 percent year-on-year.

Bidifisco’s exports to the E.U. have not been affected much by the yellow card, but the increased inspection rates for the company’s cargoes in E.U.’s ports has delayed some deliveries and resulted in additional costs, Lan said.

Following the imposition of the yellow card, Vietnam undertook 10 actions to implement the recommendations made by the E.C. and bring Vietnam into line with international rules designed to prevent and deter IUU fishing. Nearly one month after the yellow card was announced, Vietnam’s National Assembly approved an amended fisheries law that brings the country into conformity with global IUU regulations, creating a legal framework for a gradual transition to commercial, responsible, and sustainable fisheries in Vietnam, according to Hung. The law is due to enter into force on 1 January, 2019. Two directives and eight circulars to implement the law are expected to be approved by the central government later this month, Hung said.

Following a recent visit, a delegation from the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries praised Vietnam’s progress, calling the improvements in local fisheries legislation “significant.” 

Other solutions to tackle IUU are also underway, with efforts receiving extra urgency as Vietnam moves to finalize a free trade deal with the E.U.

Nguyen Tu Cuong, a representative of the Vietnam Fisheries Society, a non-governmental organization founded to support the country’s fisheries sector, said some of the E.C.’s recommendations may require more time to implement fully on the ground, due to logistical and economic reasons. Cuong said the most difficult task for Vietnam in implementing the E.C.’s recommendations may be installing an effective monitoring system that covers every fishing boat operating offshore. But an important step will take place in April 2019, when satellite-based monitoring systems will be installed for vessels of more than 24 meters in length. That system will be extended by January 2020, when monitoring systems will be installed for vessels of between 15 to 24 meters in length, according to Hung.

Strict measures applied by Vietnamese authorities following the yellow card have led to a sharp reduction in the number of Vietnamese fishing boats operating illegally in other countries, Hung added. Under the amended fisheries law, fishing boat owners and captains would be imposed the highest fines of VND 1 billion (USD 42,800 or EUR 37,746) for violations, 10 times higher than current fines. As a result, incidents involving Vietnamese vessels fishing illegally in the waters of island states in the Pacific Ocean have been eliminated, but violations in waters in of Southeast Asian nations remain an issue that needs to be addressed, even though the numbers have fallen dramatically, he said.

Other measures Vietnam plans to implement including a downsizing of its fishing fleet of about 120,000 fishing boats, most of which are of small sizes. And for the first time, a quota for tuna fishing is scheduled to begin next month, and the government has plans to study additional quota allocation for other species in 2019. Also, a national master plan on marine aquaculture, with the aim of reducing output and improving quality, is pending government approval.

Tony Long, the former director of WWF’s European policy office, concluded his own field trip to look to Vietnam earlier this month. He cited overcapacity in the number of vessels as one of the top issues Vietnam must tackle, saying the temptation will always be there for fishers to cut corners and bend the rules simply to eke out subsistence livelihoods. But he lauded Vietnam for its work to improve its approach to sustainable practices.

"I don’t think anyone can doubt the seriousness of the way different Vietnamese fisheries authorities are putting in place tough new licensing, tracking, and other control measures to tackle IUU fishing,” Long told SeafoodSource.


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