The fight against IUU fishing remains an important sustainability goal

by Thomas Jensen
Fisheries inspectors

Pressure on illegal fishing must remain high

This article was featured in Eurofish Magazine 6 2022.

The fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, usually called IUU fishing for short, has taken on global dimensions. And because almost all fishing nations are involved, there have likely been numerous successes since. But how big are the advances that have been made really? Can the success of these efforts be objectively measured and quantified? Attempting to take stock is difficult.

IUU fishing must be contained, because it contributes to overfishing of fish stocks, damages marine habitats, subjects law-abiding fishers to unfair competition and weakens the economic power of entire coastal towns and of society as a whole. Predatory fishing and illegal trade in marine products have become a global trade in recent years that makes high profits with often relatively low financial risk for its operators. IUU fishing thus has quite similar dimensions to international organised crime. The damage caused by illegal fishing practices is not just financial, however, as it also represents a serious threat to the sustainable management of the oceans as well as the future of fishing while negatively affecting its contribution to global food security. Because the extent of IUU fishing is difficult to estimate, its takings are not properly taken into consideration when assessing the condition of fish stocks. This is a problem for fisheries management, because if the IUU proportion is not taken into consideration for the calculations, the size of stocks can be overestimated and the catch quotas for the following years can be set too high.

There is a further aspect, as it is well-known that IUU fishing ­vessels and operators are disproportionately involved in human rights violations and crimes such as drugs or arms smuggling, corruption and tax evasion. Cases of modern slavery, forced labour and similar crimes are widespread in this area in particular. There are hardly ever formal employment contracts on pirate ships, and there is no social security and health insurance provision. Illegal fishing occurs especially frequently where the probability of being prosecuted is low because the relevant coastal state does not have the financial resources to thoroughly monitor its own territorial waters. This is why IUU fishing not only occurs on the high seas, which are very difficult to monitor, but also within the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and even directly off the coasts.

More precise ­information on ­quantities would ­certainly be ­motivating

Following a bank raid, the quantity of cash stolen is usually quickly determined and the loss can be calculated exactly. With IUU fishing, on the other hand, one is left groping in the dark, as the damage can only be approximately estimated, and often not at all. This is why the FAO convened a workshop of fisheries experts in 2015 in order to update the extent of global IUU estimates. The committee finally came to the disappointing conclusion, however, that the lack of robust and consistent methods and the inherent non-transparency of IUU fishing makes any estimate extremely uncertain. The problem is comparable to information on discards, which is also subject to a lack of precision. The experts only agreed on the statement that the quantity of fish that enters food webs worldwide, in whatever way, is obviously much greater than is reflected in the official statistics. The dynamic, adaptable, highly mobile and secret nature of the black market makes obtaining direct estimates practically impossible. Nevertheless, the FAO attempted a rough estimate in its biannual report “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture” (SOFIA) in 2014. According to the report, the annual takings by IUU fishing are in the region of 11 to 26 million tonnes of fish, with an estimated value of 10 to 23 billion US dollars. This corresponds to 14 to 33 percent of the catch quantity of fish and other marine animals that are taken from the oceans worldwide legally. This would mean that every fifth or sixth marine fish consumed somewhere in the world comes from illegal sources. However, the wide ranges of the estimates alone shows how uncertain such statements are. Pauly et al. (Nature 418 [2002]: 689–695) estimated the extent of global IUU fishing in the period from 1980 to 1999 at as much as 30–40 million tonnes annually. This is also a speculative value, but gives an idea of the scale of the problem.

A global consensus was therefore quickly reached that the IUU swamp must be drained through stricter regulations, comprehensive monitoring and control as well as closer international cooperation. The United Nations (UN) provided an important boost to the fight against IUU fishing when it declared the topic to be “one of the most serious problems in the global fishing industry” in 1999 and 2000. From this arose the mission to make the business of illegal fishing as difficult as possible and to eliminate the market for illegally caught fish. Due to the cross-border nature of IUU fishing, it was clear from the beginning that this challenge could only be met through international cooperation. Particularly in the areas that influence competition between countries. At the initiative of the FAO, an International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IPOA-IUU) was agreed in 2001, which resulted in an ever tighter network of control and monitoring measures (MCS). Some years later, IUU fishing was also included in the catalogue of UN sustainable development goals (SDG 14), which calls on the global community to improve the controls of coastal states and the national legal frameworks. Some of the most important points in the implementation of this package include, among others:

• Strengthening of fishing laws and regulations
• Improved monitoring of fishing fleets to protect fishing resources
• Restriction of market access for IUU-caught fish
• Improved traceability of seafood
• Raising awareness of IUU fishing among consumers
• No subsidies for companies engaged in IUU fishing.

Large importing nations must take responsibility

The economically strong G7 and G20 states have a special responsibility and must take a leading role in combating IUU fishing. This applies in particular to the EU as the world’s largest market for marine products, importing 60 percent of its fish and seafood. The EU was the first large group of important states to introduce measures to combat IUU fishing. Regulation (EC) No 1005/2008 as well as Control Regulation 1224, which was adopted in 2009, are intended to ensure that only legally caught fish products from healthy, sustainably managed stocks reach the single market. Non-EU countries that do not do enough to ­prevent and deter illegal fishing can be pushed to make improvements by issuing them with a formal warning (yellow card). If they do not act decisively and quickly introduce effective measures, their products can even be completely banned from the EU market (red card).

The regulations also prescribe exactly what vessels can land fish in the EU, what documents they need to present to do so and how the goods are to be controlled. All vessels wishing to bring fish into the EU must have an IMO number, i.e. a unique vessel identifier from the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The origin of the products in the value creation chain can be traced more precisely using this number. Such measures are intended to make it more difficult for the black sheep among fishers to engage in criminal business and also to encourage exporting countries to intensify their fight against IUU fishing. These strict regulations have been widely copied, since, with the exception of a few states, it is today legally compulsory for fish imports to be accompanied by certificates of origin confirming their legal source. Laws are important, but they are only really effective if they are consistently enforced and implemented. And this is just what is seriously lacking in some regions of the world. In order to make business as difficult as possible for illegal fishers, the responsible authorities must identify existing legal loopholes, close regulatory gaps and work more closely together.


All illegal fishers ­considered equally

Difficult aspects of this fight include the reduction of overcapacities in fishing fleets as well as the proper registration of all vessels in order to track their activities at sea ­precisely, prevent illegal activities and sanction them appropriately in the event of infringements. The authorities also gain an overview of actual catching capacities and can better estimate fishing pressure on the resources and ecosystems in their own waters. Information on the beneficial owners of the vessels, i.e. those persons who ultimately plan, control and profit from the vessel’s activities, is also particularly important in this context. Permanent vessel identification with an IMO number would also be helpful in this context, as this has by no means been satisfactorily implemented everywhere.

One disputed issue is also the question of who the main actors in illegal fishing now are. While many are of the popular opinion that it is primarily the large high-seas vessels with their enormous catch capacities that are responsible, others also attribute part of the blame to small-scale artisanal fishing. In its current State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report (SOFIA 2022), the FAO states that the global fishing fleet consists of 4.1 million vessels (as of 2020). Around 81 percent of motorised boats are uncovered and open and less than 12 metres long. The number of larger fishing vessels over 24 metres long is therefore only 45,000 units, which are also almost all officially licensed and registered. If this relatively small proportion of the global fishing fleet was actually the main actor in IUU fishing, this would be a sad testimony to the efficiency and effectiveness of state and international fisheries controls. It seems difficult to imagine that this small number of vessels cannot be consistently monitored with the appropriate will and that it is responsible for the bulk of illegal catches. Why not look at the countless small boats that fish primarily in coastal areas? Sure, their daily catches are small in comparison, but quite significant quantities can be caught along a coastal strip. Many boats are also not registered and are not assigned any catch quotas. Their catches are seldom controlled, because they are almost always marketed regionally.

Is the role of artisanal small fishers in IUU fishing perhaps intentionally downplayed because nobody dares to properly address the topic? There are not just the immense problems in recording, registering and controlling many thousands of boats, there are also social questions to be resolved. An example of the enormous cost associated with these tasks is Thailand, which, after being issued with a yellow card by the EU, has made great efforts to reform and modernise its fishing sector since April 2015. It took enormous staff, time and financial resources to integrate its more than 40,000 small-scale fishers into the new system and to take their social needs into account appropriately.

Intensive controls at ports are particularly effective

The biggest advances in fighting illegal fishing in recent times have been attributable to enhanced controls where catches are landed at ports. Because controls at sea are well-known to be expensive and difficult, the international community has focused on inspections in ports, which are cheap, easier to implement and just as secure. An important milestone in this context was the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), which entered into force on 5 June 2016. Around 70 countries, representing more than half of all port states worldwide, have ratified this agreement to date. The PSMA makes it almost impossible for known and suspected IUU vessels to call at ­specific ports and land their illegal catches there. The system has since become even more efficient, because the PSMA Global Information Exchange System (GIES) developed by the FAO improves the digitised exchange of information in real time and makes early warnings possible.

Opportunities for IUU fishing are indisputably becoming ever more restricted. Practices such as the reloading of illegal catches at sea (transshipment) to disguise their origin and sneak them unnoticed into the value creation chain are regulated more strictly than before and are more thoroughly monitored in many locations. The regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs), which manage fishing regions outside of EEZs on the open oceans have also become better integrated into the fight against IUU fishing. Almost all have registers for those vessels that are allowed to fish in their regions legally, but also blacklists of black sheep fishers and vessels that have already tried to land IUU fish in an RFMO port. This name and shame principle is intended to make it more difficult for IUU fishers to find ports to call at. There are also new monitoring tools (MCS) such as electronic logbooks (CDS, catch documentation scheme) and vessel monitoring systems (VMS) with which the catch positions and travel routes of the fishing vessels can be monitored via satellite. Not all loopholes have been closed by any means, but states are working on it. They are increasingly cooperating more closely with each other and coordinating their control activities better.

There have certainly been successes, but they are difficult to measure

It can be deduced indirectly from all of these efforts that there must be successes in combating and stemming IUU fishing. Anything else would be surprising and disappointing, given the enormous effort that is being put in worldwide. In fact, the FAO and the OECD report “Closing gaps in national policies against IUU-fishing” (2019) confirms that since 2005 there have been remarkable advances in all areas of state intervention against IUU fishing. But what does that mean exactly? Can the successes be counted in concrete numbers, in tonnage or with other key figures? Obviously not, since concrete statements regarding this are avoided. It is vaguely claimed that the effectiveness of the reforms in the fight against IUU fishing can be seen at a local and regional level. But how far IUU fishing has been pushed back at a global level remains unclear. This makes sense and is to be expected, since if the exact dimensions of global IUU fishing are only approximately known, then of course its reduction cannot be sufficiently accurately estimated.

Individual reports of success show, however, that the enormous international effort has not been in vain and has definitely had effects. The SOFIA status report from the FAO in 2018 reports, for example, that catches of the Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) have successfully been stabilised since 2005 at 10,500 to 12,400 tonnes. The illegal catching of this valuable species of fish, which was still estimated at over 30,000 tonnes in 1997, declined by 2014 to less than 1,500 tonnes per year. This is still far too high a number, but nevertheless it a significant success, which can primarily be attributed to improved coastal state controls and stricter legal framework conditions. It is therefore worth continuing to invest in the fight against IUU fishing.

Manfred Klinkhardt

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