Unscrupulous fishing worsens the problems
Nowadays, the world’s fish stocks are not only under threat from intensive legal fishing activities; they are also at risk from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. It is difficult to estimate precisely the total catch from pirate fishing. Researchers are engaged in the painstaking process of collating data from various countries’ fisheries control agencies, experts’ estimates, trade figures and the findings of independent research expeditions in order to arrive at an approximate figure for the total IUU catch. As this is a black market, however, estimates are bound to be unreliable. Some experts put the annual figure at around 11 million tonnes; others suggest that it may be as high as 26 million tonnes – equal to 14 or 33 per cent respectively of the world’s total legal catch (fish and other marine
fauna) in 2011. These catches are additional to the world annual catch of fish and other marine fauna, currently 78.9 million tonnes.
For many years, however, too little account was taken of IUU fishing in estimates of fish stocks. This is problematical, for unless the IUU share is factored into the calculations, the legal catch quotas for a given maritime region cannot be determined correctly. Based on the assumption that less fish is being caught than is in fact the case, experts overestimate the size of the stock and set the following year’s catch quotas too high, potentially entrenching and accelerating the overexploitation of the stock.
IUU fishing also exacerbates the problem of overfishing because IUU vessels even operate in marine protected areas where a total fishing ban has been imposed. It also pays little or no heed to fisheries management plans which are intended to conserve overexploited or depleted stocks.
However, the main reason why IUU fishing is a particularly critical issue today is that many fish stocks have already been overexploited by legal fishing activities. IUU fishing therefore puts fish stocks under additional pressure. If stocks were being managed sustainably, on the other hand, IUU fishing would no longer exacerbate an already difficult situation to the extent that it does today.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines three categories of IUU fishing:
- ILLEGAL FISHING refers to fishing activities conducted by foreign vessels without permission in waters under the jurisdiction of another state, or which contravene its fisheries law and regulations in some other manner – for example, by disregarding fishing times or the existence of the state’s protected areas. For example, some IUU vessels operate in waters under the jurisdiction of West African states. As these countries generally cannot afford to establish effective fisheries control structures, the IUU vessels are able, in many cases, to operate with impunity.
- UNREPORTED FISHING refers to fishing activities which have not been reported, or have been misreported, by the vessels to the relevant national authority. For example, some vessels harvest more tonnage than they are entitled to catch under official fishing quotas. In 2006, for example, several Spanish trawlers were inspected by the Norwegian Coast Guard near Svalbard (Spitsbergen). The trawlers were found to hold not only the reported catch of headed and gutted cod but also a total of 600 tonnes of cod fillets which had not been reported to the Norwegian authorities. The Norwegian authorities subsequently imposed fines on the Spanish trawler company equivalent to 2 million euros.
- 3.24 > A chase at sea near South Korea: an entire fleet of illegal Chinese fishing vessels attempts to evade the South Korean Coast Guard. The fishermen were arrested by armed units soon afterwards.
- UNREGULATED FISHING refers to fishing activities in areas where there are no applicable management measures to regulate the catch; this is the case in the South Atlantic, for example. The term also applies to fishing for highly migratory species and certain species of shark, which is not regulated by a Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO). And finally, the term applies to fishing activities in international waters in violation of regulations established by the relevant RFMO.
Although unregulated fishing is not in fact illegal under the law of nations applicable to the high seas, it is nonetheless problematical. It results in additional fish being caught over and above the maximum catches agreed by RFMO member states for their respective regions.
As a result, fully exploited stocks can easily become over-exploited. Furthermore, IUU fishermen often ignore the existence of marine protected areas established by the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations to support the recovery of overexploited stocks.
Why does IUU fishing exist?
From the fishermen’s perspective, IUU fishing is highly attractive as they pay no taxes or duties on these catches. A further reason why IUU fishing takes place on such a large scale is that it can often be practised with impunity. This is mainly the case in the territorial waters or exclusive economic zones of countries which cannot afford to set up costly and complex fisheries control structures such as those existing in Europe.
The situation is especially difficult in the developing countries. In a comprehensive analysis of IUU fishing worldwide, researchers conclude that IUU fishing is mainly practised in countries which exhibit typical symptoms of weak governance: large-scale corruption, ambivalent legislation, and a lack of will or capacity to enforce existing national legislation.
The Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC), comprising seven member states in West Africa (Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone), has produced a detailed list of the various causes of IUU fishing:
- There are insufficient and inadequately trained personnel in the relevant authorities.
- The authorities’ motivation to invest in relevant personnel is poor. Financially weak states set other priorities.
- Salaries are low, and vessel owners take advantage of this situation to make irregular payments to observers/ fisheries administrators to cover up their activities.
- The purchase, maintenance and operational costs of patrol boats and aircraft are very high. For effective control, there must be sufficient time spent out at sea or in the air. However, in some states, even though they are available, they are not operational due to logistical problems – lack of fuel, proper maintenance regime, etc.
- 3.25 > Transshipment is typical of IUU fishing. As seen here off the coast of Indonesia, smaller fishing vessels transfer their illegally caught fish onto larger refrigerated transport ships (reefers). The fishing vessels are restocked with fuel and supplies at the same time, enabling them to remain at sea for many months.
Where does IUU fishing take place?
The situation off the coast of West Africa is particularly critical. Here, IUU fishing accounts for an estimated 40 per cent of fish caught – the highest level worldwide. This is a catastrophe for the region’s already severely overexploited fish stocks. Confident that as a rule, they have no reason to fear any checks by fisheries control agencies or prosecution, some IUU vessels even fish directly off the coast – in some cases at a distance of just one kilometre from the shore. A similar situation exists in parts of the Pacific. Indonesian experts report that it is extremely difficult to track the whereabouts of IUU vessels around the country’s islands and archipelagos. The volume of the illegal catch here is correspondingly high, amounting to 1.5 million tonnes annually. The Arafura Sea, which lies between Australia and Indonesia, is also very severely affected. After West Africa, the Western Central Pacific Ocean is the region with the highest rate of IUU fishing worldwide. In the Western Pacific, IUU fishing accounts for 34 per cent of the total catch.
A similar situation exists in the Northwest Pacific Ocean, especially in the West Bering Sea. Here, IUU fishing is mainly practised by China and Russia and amounts to 33 per cent of the catch.
Figures for the Southwest Atlantic are unreliable, but experts estimate that IUU fishing here amounts to 32 per cent.
What’s the catch?
IUU fishing often targets high-value demersal species (i.e. those which live and feed on or near the bottom of the sea) such as cod, as well as salmon, trout, lobster and prawns. It is mainly interested in species which are already overexploited by legal fishing or which are subject to restrictions for fisheries management purposes. As these species can only be traded in small quantities, demand and prices are high – making this a lucrative business for IUU fishermen. >