The fight against illegal fishing: The EU’s role in a global challenge

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The EU not only has a great responsibility to demonstrate legal and sustainable seafood supply chains to its consumers. It must ensure that its access to abundant seafood does not rob more vulnerable communities, of their own, writes Eszter Hidas.

Eszter Hidas is EU Policy Officer for WWF Smart Fishing Initiative’s Illegal Fishing project

Combatting illegal fishing is a colossal global challenge. Illegally caught seafood products reach our markets and they are impossible to differentiate from those that were caught legally. Indeed, fish often travel long journeys from the hook to consumers’ plates, and still many are captured under illegal conditions or through illegal methods. So how legal is the fish we are consuming in the EU?

Illicitly caught fish products are currently estimated to cost between €9-21 billion annually, representing 11 to 26 million tonnes, or approximately 15 %, of world catches.

Fishing activities that do not abide by national and international regulations exploit fish stocks well beyond their sustainable levels, damage marine ecosystems, put legitimate fishers at an unfair disadvantage and jeopardize the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on fishing for their food or income. Additionally, some illegal fishing activities have been closely linked to other serious crimes, such as human and drug trafficking, and slave labour.

Consuming 25% of the world’s seafood, almost 70% of which is imported, the EU possesses the world’s leading seafood market.

The EU not only has a great responsibility to demonstrate legal and sustainable seafood supply chains to its consumers, but also a great responsibility to ensure that its access to abundant seafood does not rob more vulnerable communities of their own. Or for that matter, the ocean of all its fish.

The EU illegal fishing regulation (IUU) is an innovative and pioneering legal tool that has placed the European Union at the forefront of global efforts to address illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Since it entered into force in January 2010, this legislation has been the EU’s weapon to prevent illicitly caught fish products from reaching the EU’s profitable markets, and to encourage countries that export to the EU to address their shortcomings in fighting illegal fishing in their waters and by their fleets.

By demanding catch certificates to certify the legality of seafood products entering the EU, member states can detect and block the entry of illegally caught seafood products. In the last five years, more than 100 consignments of fish have been blocked entry into the EU.

More impressively, by demanding minimum standards in fisheries management and control from countries that export to the EU, the EU has encouraged many – including among others, Fiji, Panama, Togo, Vanuatu, Belize, Korea and Philippines – to entirely reform their fisheries policies and laws, and introduce more sophisticated vessel monitoring systems and sanctioning tools to effectively combat illegal fishing, in order to gain market access to the EU.

Recently having given a formal warning, or “yellow card”, to Thailand, the third largest exporter of seafood worldwide, the EU has also demonstrated its courage to go after “the big players” in this respect.

Of course, this is not to say that the EU is doing all it should to fight IUU fishing.

There are still undoubtedly, challenges to face and room for improvement. Surprisingly, well into the digital era, the EU catch certificate system is still paper-based allowing significant possibility for fraud. Indeed, several hundred thousand catch certificates every year reach the various border control posts of EU countries, and it is currently very difficult to detect whether any of these catch certificates are in fact, simply fake photocopies of one same certificate sent to different countries or not.

Additionally, some EU countries are less vigilant than others in verifying catch certificates. A harmonised effective system of vigilance is needed to avoid illegal fish entering the EU market.

But from a global perspective, the EU is in fact ahead of the game as the first major seafood importing market to impose serious measures against IUU products entering its market. Fortunately, the United States, as the world’s second largest seafood market, has also just recently decided to join with its own strong policy.

On 15 March, the US announced the launch of a new action plan against illegal fishing and seafood fraud, which will establish regulations requiring information and traceability to prove the legality of fished products entering its markets.

Starting with a first phase of rules to be imposed on an initial set of high risk species by October 2016, the action plan calls for extending the regulations to comprehensive coverage of all wild seafood products during the next US administration. As with the EU regulation, the new US policy will apply both to US domestic products and to imports.

As the momentum builds towards effective rules to halt IUU trade, there is a strong need for international cooperation to achieve real results. Only when the EU, the USA and other key markets such as Japan collaboratively close their markets to IUU products will the real global fight against IUU fishing begin. For now, IUU products are likely simply being diverted from the EU to other markets.

Looking forward, the key message is simple. Key market states need to close their borders to IUU products, while fishing nations that supply the world’s fish need to establish good fisheries governance and effective monitoring and control of their fleets and waters.

As for the EU: the right laws are in place. They just need to be effectively implemented. Digitalising the catch certificate system to achieve greater transparency and traceability, would greatly facilitate this task.