Closing the net: The EU must step up enforcement of seafood import controls

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60% of the fish consumed in the EU is imported. [Charles Haynes/Flickr]

The EU has some of the world’s toughest legislation aimed at barring imports of illegally-caught fish. But inadequate enforcement and an outdated import document scheme risk undermining its impact, writes Victoria Mundy.

Victoria Mundy is the policy researcher for a coalition of NGOs working to support the effective implementation of the EU IUU Regulation. This article is based on a new publication by the group: Implementation of import controls under the EU Regulation to end illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing: A review of progress to date

If you’re contemplating fish for dinner this week, you might imagine it arriving fresh on European shores aboard a traditional fishing vessel, with a simple inspection to check its provenance. Bon appétit, of course, but time for an update.

The EU is the world’s largest importer of seafood products, buying in 60% of the fish it consumes from across the world. Together, EU nations imported 3.5 million tonnes of seafood in 2015, around 90% of which arrived, mostly pre-processed and frozen, in containers via the major container ports or on planes or trucks.

These imports are accompanied by an annual average of 250,000 complex, mainly paper, import documents (catch certificates), from which authorities must deduce whether a particular consignment of often anonymous-looking frozen white fillets is really from the country stated and whether the fish was caught in accordance with applicable fisheries rules.

As member states will undoubtedly testify, given the scale and complexity of the EU’s fisheries imports, these checks are time-consuming and expensive. Which is why, as the European Commission stated in 2015, robust risk analysis is essential to carrying out effective import controls aimed at combatting the global problem of illegal fishing.

Seven years since the introduction of the EU’s Regulation to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, aimed at barring illegally caught fish from entry to the EU market, it appears this message is not getting through across all member states.

An analysis of data submitted by member states on their procedures for import controls reveals striking inconsistencies in the way countries are scrutinising incoming seafood consignments and catch certificates, with both widely varying and in some cases clearly inadequate procedures for risk-assessment among the headline findings.

According to their own reporting, authorities in many EU countries, among them major seafood importers, are failing to carry out adequate risk-assessment on consignments even where these come from countries warned by the EU itself for inadequate measures to prevent illegal fishing. In some cases, control procedures appear insufficient to comply with the minimum obligations laid down in the law.

Of special concern are wide variations in procedures for checking containerised seafood imports, which are not subject to the same inspection obligations as fishing vessels, but require a particularly robust and consistent approach to risk-assessment across member states.

Evidence is emerging, according to national competent authorities for implementation of the EU IUU Regulation, that inconsistent controls may be resulting in the diversion of high-risk trade flows to EU nations applying less stringent procedures.

These failings undermine the significant progress in import controls achieved by some member states, and threaten to obscure the successes of other parts of the Regulation, notably in supporting many poorer coastal States to build more rigorous fisheries management systems.

The problem is seriously compounded by the unacceptable delay in launching an EU-wide electronic database for catch certificates, promised by the Commission for 2016. A recent case study revealed that the fraudulent use of paper catch certificates, and lack of an EU-wide system for cross-checking import documents, means unscrupulous operators can still play the system and find the weakest links to get their illegal catch to market.

As the old adage has it, a chain is no stronger than its weakest link. Action is urgently needed to ensure that EU countries act robustly and in concert, supported by fit-for-purpose modern tools, to effectively shut out illegal catch and maintain the Union’s deserved reputation as a global leader in this field.

Illegal fishing impacts us all. It undermines the food and economic security of those reliant on seafood for protein and livelihoods, often amongst the most vulnerable communities in the world. It undermines an even playing field for fishers everywhere. And it undermines the ocean’s resilience, on which we all depend.