Fighting for the ocean: the story of tackling IUU

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Battleship naval officers searched and arrested illegal items on Thai fishing vessels, Thailand, 29 May 2013. [nattapon supanawan / Shutterstock]

The European Union is leading the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and has a lot to be proud of. Yet, many challenges are still lying ahead, writes Virginijus Sinkevičius.

Virginijus Sinkevičius is The European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing poses a huge challenge to the sustainability of fish stocks, but also to the livelihoods of coastal communities worldwide. The European Union is leading the global fight against IUU, and we have a lot to be proud of. Over the past decade, we have come a long way, but many challenges still lie ahead of us.

The fight against IUU fishing received new impetus in 2010, when the EU brought into force the IUU Regulation. The Regulation put in place a unique legal framework aiming at protecting the EU market against products stemming from illegal fishing activities and thus, protecting our oceans.

How has a piece of legislation become such a powerful tool in improving the sustainable use of fisheries resources and the governance of the oceans? First of all, the regulation is built on transparency and non-discrimination.

It does not establish new rules. It simply reiterates existing international obligations of port, coastal, flag and market states. But sometimes legal instruments don’t deliver the way they were aimed to. Why is it different here?

The real secret to the IUU Regulation success is the ambitious programme of cooperation through bilateral dialogues with non-EU countries, and the comprehensive system of catch certification, which aims at ensuring that products stemming from IUU fishing do not enter the EU market. And then, a true amount of good old-fashioned willpower and perseverance.

The bilateral dialogues between the Commission and non-EU countries work under the principle that we must all abide by the obligations taken under the international law of the sea.

Cooperation aims at overcoming weaknesses identified in a given country’s fisheries management system. It operates through support, guidance and influence, rather than through sanctions. The objective is to support positive changes to ocean conservation and improvements to the partner countries’ fisheries management systems.

The “carding scheme” envisions a gradual approach to countries not abiding their international obligations. The so-called yellow card does not entail sanctions, but the Commission enters into a more formal dialogue with the country, proposes actions, and ensures that a suitable plan is implemented to remedy the identified shortcomings.

Thailand welcomes EU decision to lift warning on illegal fishing

Thailand on Wednesday (9 January) welcomed a decision by the European Commission to drop the Southeast Asian nation from a list of countries it had warned over illegal and unregulated fishing.

At the same time, EU has demonstrated that it will not hesitate to use the sanctions, that is, the red-card: this implies that the Council may list the country as non-cooperating, and that structural changes are necessary. Until those changes are not implemented, fisheries products from the country in question will be banned from the EU market.

Our colourful carding system catches attention and that is precisely one of our objectives with it. We need to raise public and political awareness about the scourge represented by IUU fishing and bring about a change.

Over time, we have engaged in dialogue with more than 60 countries, out of which 26 received a yellow card. For only 6 of them we had to move to a red card due to a lack of cooperation.

This proves that the carding system has created the political will to act and triggers structural changes, by reinforcing national fisheries administrations and providing adequate tools to monitor, detect and address IUU fishing.

Furthermore, the EU is pursuing the fight against IUU fishing at regional and multilateral level. In particular in the context of the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) and in the UN/FAO, which are key for taking and implementing effective measures to tackle this scourge.

As Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, I am responsible for ensuring synergies between these policies as well as with other Union policies.  President Von der Leyen has entrusted me with promoting a zero-tolerance policy on IUU fishing. One of the objectives of my mandate is therefore to make this policy a priority of the international agenda.

The implications of IUU fishing are not strictly related to the fisheries sector. On the contrary, they transcend this niche and have an impact in many other fields.

Often, our actions to tackle IUU fishing are therefore tangible responses to problems of cross-cutting nature, hence contributing to the achievement of the objectives of the European Green Deal and of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Key international instruments have been agreed since the EU Regulation was adopted. The Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), the first binding international agreement that specifically targets IUU fishing, came into force in 2016.

For the first time, it shifts the focus on the fight against IUU fishing to the port states, in addition to flag states, putting the spotlight on the vital role that the former have in addressing this problem.

Ports are the first entry point of fishery products to the markets. They are crucial in identifying and eliminating products obtained from IUU fishing and in ensuring they do not reach the consumers.

In this respect, we will be hosting the next meeting of the Parties to this Agreement in May-June 2021, which will also be an occasion to confirm our dedication in the fight against IUU fishing.

Many things have happened in the past 10 years. 2020 might not be a year for celebrations due to the coronavirus pandemic. Nonetheless, this should not prevent us from being proud of our achievements under the IUU Regulation, 10 years after its entry into force, as well as from renewing our commitment to continue to pursue zero tolerance towards IUU fishing.

With this in mind, I will be co-hosting with the NGO EU IUU Coalition (Environmental Justice Foundation, Oceana, The Nature Conservancy, The Pew Charitable Trusts and WWF) a seminar to discuss the experiences and views on the implementation of the Regulation and exchange on the needs in this fight for the coming years.

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