Too many loopholes
Combating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing at sea is generally extremely expensive and very complex. Affluent countries such as Norway can afford to enforce stringent controls in the waters under their jurisdiction and deploy a large fleet of vessels and a great many personnel for this purpose. An effective and possibly less costly alternative is to carry out rigorous checks in port. However, this only helps to curb IUU fishing if all ports cooperate.
In the European Union (EU), regulations in force since 2008 and 2009 contain uniform provisions on the type of controls to be carried out in EU ports. Since then, it has become very difficult for IUU vessels to land their catches in EU ports.
Nonetheless, there are still ports in other regions where IUU fishermen can land their illegally caught fish with no repercussions. Here too, it is mainly the developing countries, with their absence of controls, which are particularly suitable for illegal transshipment. However, examples such as the Spanish trawlers near Svalbard show that even fishermen from EU countries are not immune to temptation and that the prospect of a healthy profit may persuade them to fish illegally.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that not every IUU vessel needs to put into port in order to land its catch immediately. In many cases, especially off the coast of West Africa, the smaller fishing vessels load their catch onto larger refrigerated ships (known as reefers) while at sea. During this transshipment, fishermen on board are also resupplied with food and fuel, enabling them to remain at sea for many months.
- 3.26 > Different species groups (fish and other marine fauna) are affected by IUU fishing to varying degrees. One particular study has shown that from 2000 to 2003, IUU fishing mainly targeted demersal species (i.e. those which live and feed on or near the bottom of the sea). The figure shows the illegal and unreported catch, as a percentage of reported catch, by species group.
- The Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC) concludes that some IUU vessels off West Africa are in operation 365 days of the year, putting massive pressure on fish stocks. The refrigerated ships then make for ports in countries with lax controls, enabling them to land their catches unhindered.
The practice of using a flag of convenience (FOC) also makes it easier to engage in IUU fishing activity. Instead of registering the ships in the shipping company’s home state, IUU fishers operate their vessels under the flag of another state, such as Belize, Liberia or Panama, with less stringent regulations or ineffective control over the operations of its flagged vessels.
By switching to a foreign register of ships, restrictive employment legislation and minimum wage provisions in the home country can also be circumvented, allowing the shipping companies to pay lower wages and social insurance contributions for their crews than if the vessel were registered in Germany, for example. Furthermore, fisheries legislation in “flag-of-convenience” states is often extremely lax. These countries rarely, if ever, inspect their vessels for illegal catches.
Monitoring of onboard working conditions is also inadequate, and conditions are correspondingly poor. The fishermen work for low wages on vessels whose standards of accommodation are spartan in the extreme, and which rarely comply with the current safety standards applicable to merchant shipping under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS regulations). The Convention contains exact details of equipment that must be available to ensure safety on board.
Combating IUU fishing
Today, IUU fishing is a global problem, with vast amounts of fish being caught illegally. Nonetheless, the worst seems to be over. IUU fishing was at its peak in the mid 1990s. Since then, according to the FAO, it has declined in various maritime regions, partly due to more stringent government controls. In Mauritania, for example, fisheries control structures have been established with support from German development assistance, with ships now being tracked by a satellite-based vessel monitoring system (VMS).
Other countries are now more inclined to comply with the relevant laws and agreements. Poland is a good example. For many years, Polish fishermen were constantly in breach of the EU’s quotas for cod fisheries for the eastern Baltic, routinely catching far more fish than the total allowable catch. This was tolerated by the Polish government of the day. With the change of government in November 2007, however, the situation changed, and Poland is now complying with the quotas.
World population growth is likely to drive up the demand for fish even further. IUU fishing will therefore continue to be an attractive option, and can only be curbed with more stringent controls. To that end, controls and sanctions must be coordinated and consistently enforced at the international level. The FAO therefore adopted the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF) in 1995, which was endorsed by around 170 member states. Although the CCRF is voluntary and non-binding, a number of countries, including Australia, Malaysia, Namibia, Norway and South Africa, have incorporated some of its provisions into national law. Predictably, IUU fishing has decreased in these regions.
3.27 > An armed unit of the South Korean Coast Guard arrests Chinese fishermen who have been fishing illegally in South Korean waters. Very few countries can afford such effective fisheries control structures.
- In order to prevent landings of illegally caught fish in the EU, Council Regulation (EC) No 1005 on IUU fishing was adopted in 2008; this was followed by Council Regulation (EC) No 1224 establishing a Community control system for ensuring compliance with the rules of the common fisheries policy in 2009. These regulations describe in precise detail which vessels may land fish in the EU, which specific documents they must produce, and how the catch is to be controlled. The aim is to prevent IUU fishing EU-wide and close any loopholes. The current procedure for landing catches in an EU port is therefore as follows:
A) Before the vessel lands its catch, it must provide reasonable advance notice.
B) Once the vessel has docked,
- the fishing licence is checked. This includes the vessel’s operating licence issued by the flag state and information showing who is authorized to operate the vessel.
- the fishing authorization is checked. This contains detailed information about the vessel’s permitted fishing activity, including types of fish, times, locations and quantities.
- the catch certificate is checked. This contains information about the catch currently on board, including where and when it was caught.
- the logbook in electronic format is checked. The master of the vessel must record on a daily basis when and where the fish was caught, and in which quantities.
- If a ship lacks any of the relevant documentation, it is not permitted to land its catch and must head instead for a port outside the EU. Permission to land the catch is also refused if there are any discrepancies between the figures given in the catch certificate and the daily entries in the electronic logbook. In this case, the fisheries control agency – in Germany, this is the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food – may require vessel monitoring data to be produced. Nowadays, electronic devices, or “blue boxes”, are installed on board fishing vessels and form part of the satellite-based vessel monitoring system (VMS). The blue box regularly sends data about the location of the vessel to the fisheries monitoring centre (FMC) responsible for the area where the vessel is currently fishing. If the vessel enters territorial waters or fishing grounds where it is not permitted to fish, the master of the vessel can be prosecuted.
- 3.28 > Nowadays, fishing vessels must be equipped with electronic devices, or “blue boxes”, which form part of the satellite-based vessel monitoring system (VMS). The blue box regularly sends data about the location of the vessel to the fisheries monitoring centre (FMC). Vessels are also equipped with GPS transmitters which track the ship’s speed and position.
- In suspicious cases, the state in which the fish is to be landed may request the VMS data from the state in whose waters the vessel has been fishing. Furthermore, the landing procedure is observed in each EU port. The fisheries control agency checks how much is being landed and which species comprise the catch. Random checks are also carried out periodically. Relevant measures have been agreed by the EU and the other countries belonging to the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), including Iceland and Norway, putting this region beyond the reach of IUU fishermen.
The same applies to the Northwest Atlantic, ports in the US, Canada and other member states of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), such as Denmark, Iceland and Norway.
The example of Mauritania shows that more stringent controls can be introduced to good effect in developing countries as well. VMS-based monitoring of vessels and controls of landings in port have largely eliminated IUU fishing here.
The FAO has been lobbying for many years for stringent and uniform controls worldwide and is a firm advocate of close cooperation among ports. It takes the view that a concerted approach by ports will make it more difficult for IUU fishing vessels to find a port where they can land their catches without fear of repercussions. However, ports derive an income stream from the charges they impose on vessels using their facilities. Ports which are used by a large number of vessels generate very large amounts of revenue, and for some ports, this takes precedence over the protection of fish stocks. Although a draft Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing has existed for a good three years, based on the FAO Code of Conduct, no specific measures to enforce global action have been adopted yet.
A further initiative to combat IUU fishing consists of the blacklists held by the RFMOs. These include details of vessels which have attempted at some point to land IUU fish at an RFMO port. Port and fisheries control authorities regularly refer to these blacklists. This “name and shame” policy is intended to make it even more difficult for IUU vessels to find ports where they can land their catches. However, here too, states must be willing to cooperate in order to combat IUU fishing effectively. As long as the lack of international coordination allows loopholes to exist, IUU fishing will continue.