Progress in controlling illegal fishing

IUU fishing – the Pew Trusts

Peter Horn MBE of the Pew Charitable Trusts reviews the steps being taken

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing cheats coastal communities that depend on healthy fish populations for income, skews scientific stock assessments that rely on accurate reporting, and undermines law-abiding fishers who play by the rules. It also represents a major threat to the world’s fisheries and the marine environment.

As the global problem of IUU fishing has gained wider attention in recent years, the challenge of how to assess progress in the fight to end it has grown. Detailed assessments of IUU fishing rarely align in their conclusions, and better awareness and reporting of IUU incidents can give the impression that illegal fishing is increasing around the world. That isn’t so. In fact, the global community is making strides in combating this urgent problem.

A diverse group of stakeholders, including many governments, companies in the fishing and seafood industries, Interpol, human rights groups and conservationists, have stepped up their game – and in many cases joined forces – to end illegal fishing. The main tools they’ve used in that effort include legislation, regional and global agreements, technology and, most importantly, political will.

Since 2009, the Pew Charitable Trusts has been working to end industrial-scale illegal fishing by fostering cooperation among key partners for policy change and implementation. More recently, we have begun engaging with seafood buyers to educate them on existing policies that can help keep illicitly caught fish out of their supply chains. We’re also working to help ensure that authorities have the tools they need to crack down on this activity. Our vision is for a cost-effective global system to deter illegal fishing wherever possible, monitor waters to better identify suspected IUU activity, and prosecute those proved to have engaged in the crimes.

Making progress

Belize-registered trawler Greko 1 was fined for fishing illegally in Somali waters. Investigations revealed that the Greko 1 and her sister ship Greko 2 had officially been ‘scrapped’ and that the owner had received €1.4 million under an EU capacity reduction scheme. Photo: © Stop Illegal Fishing

An obvious mechanism for deterring any crime is to make it unprofitable. Two measures show how that can be achieved. The first, the European Union (EU) IUU regulation of 2008, is an example of a government using its stature as one of the world’s leading seafood markets to pressure other governments to better police their fleets and encourage fishing within the law.

When the EU identifies a seafood-exporting country as insufficiently preventing IUU fishing by its fleet, it might issue a warning, called a yellow card, giving the country a deadline for improving its performance. Countries that succeed are awarded a green card, restoring their ability to export freely to the EU. Those that fail face a potential ban – a red card. The EU has been using this effectively over the past ten years, and has brought significant positive change from numerous countries around the world.

The second measure that could have a profound impact on illegal fishers’ ability to sell their stolen goods is the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), an international treaty that entered into force in 2016. Parties to PSMA can refuse entry to their ports to foreign-flagged vessels known to have engaged in IUU fishing. If a vessel is found to have broken the law, officials will share that information with other ports and other governments. So far, 55 countries have ratified the PSMA, and more are expected to do so in the coming years.

Looking forward, it is encouraging to see momentum building behind the International Maritime Organization (IMO)-sponsored Cape Town Agreement, which would raise standards concerning fishing vessel safety, tracking, and inspection; experts expect this to expose a lot of IUU operators, many of whom pay scant attention to the welfare of those working at sea.

As the architects of the EU IUU regulation recognised, ensuring that flag states fulfil their obligations is critical to countering IUU fishing. The flag state controls fishing vessel registration, which is required to conduct any fishing operations. It is fair to say that flag state performance on fishing vessels is patchy, but not all poor performance in that area is wilful. While some governments around the world are still issuing flags of convenience, others have recognised the negative consequences of lax oversight and have mended their ways. Pew is in the final stages of developing a tool through which flag states will be able to assess both their requirements for monitoring fishing vessels and their progress in doing so.

Methods for monitoring

Of course, to monitor vessels, authorities and governments must be able to identify those ships. For larger vessels, achieving that starts with an IMO number. While there is no global requirement that fishing vessels have IMO numbers, forward-looking governments and regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) are increasingly requiring them for ships over a certain length or tonnage. The official registry of IMO numbers for fishing vessels has grown by 15% over the past year.

Increasingly, authorities are also relying on two long-standing tracking tools – the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) and the Automatic Identification System (AIS) – to help detect and deter illegal fishing. Although fishing vessels are exempt, many states mandate AIS for their fishing fleets, along with a secondary means of monitoring. AIS has limitations, though: it relies on the captain to provide vessel position and identity, and can be easily manipulated to hide illegal activity.

To help tighten monitoring of boats on the water, many governments and authorities are turning to satellite-based tracking technology, through initiatives including OceanMind, Global Fishing Watch and Vulcan Skylight. These platforms process vast amounts of data and use machine-learning techniques to identify and track suspect vessels, such as by homing in on specific patterns (fishing operations are quite distinctive). The technologies also highlight anomalies in a vessel’s self-reported data. All of this is making it harder for illicit actors to hide.

Work is also under way to better understand transshipment – the transfer of fish between vessels at sea or in port – and to what extent unscrupulous captains are using it to move illegally caught fish to market. Experts and authorities don’t know if there is a strong relationship between transshipment and IUU fishing but recognise that the practice presents an opportunity to mix legally and illegally caught fish, as well as to keep crews at sea for months or years at a time. For these reasons, most people involved with management of the industry agree that transshipment needs to be either closely overseen or banned.

Increasingly, players along each step of the seafood supply chain understand why and how they should be working to eliminate IUU fishing. Many companies are including a risk assessment of the potential for illegally caught fish to enter their supply chains and are taking actions to mitigate it, demanding increased transparency from suppliers. With more companies seeking to ensure the legality of their fish, these efforts are slowly increasing the likelihood of discovering and reducing the profit for illegal fishers.

Political will

FISH-i Africa’s first success. The fishing vessel Premier was denied port access to offload its catch by FISH-i Africa members. A US $1 million fine was paid to the Liberian authorities for illegal fishing in Liberian waters. Photo: © Stop Illegal Fishing

In the developing world especially, the agencies that historically have been tasked with fisheries conservation and enforcement are woefully underfunded and understaffed. But that hasn’t stopped some of those governments from making great strides against IUU fishing.

In the western Indian Ocean, a partnership of eight African nations is showing what can be achieved on a limited budget if there is sufficient political will. Launched in December 2012, FISH-i Africa is a Pew supported partnership among Comoros, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, Somalia and Tanzania. These governments share information and coordinate responses to suspected illegal fishing in each other’s waters, a collaboration that has led to over thirty successful prosecutions.

While there is still a long way to go, progress is evident in the fight against IUU fishing. Political and public awareness of the issue has increased, and legislation, treaties, technology, partnerships and other mechanisms are helping to cost-effectively deter, detect and successfully prosecute IUU offences. Critically, countries and regions that demonstrate political will are making significant progress, as seen through FISH-i Africa’s recent successes and the number of governments that have reformed their fisheries management after receiving red or yellow cards under the EU IUU regulation.

While the fight is far from over, global momentum to end IUU fishing is helping tighten the net on the illegal operators who are stealing fish, exploiting workforces, and undermining governance of the oceans.

Peter Horn, acting director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Ending Illegal Fishing project, is a former Commander in the Royal Navy, in which he served more than 30 years and his appointments included the Fishery Protection Squadron as well as senior positions in strategic planning and intelligence. He joined Pew in 2015. He holds a master’s degree in intelligence and security studies from the University of Salford.