Despite the sheer scale of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing — an annual global worth of up to $20 billion and involving as much as 25 million metric tons of wild-caught seafood products — simply finding any vessels serially involved in IUU activities, let alone prosecuting them is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack, delegates heard at 10th International Forum on IU Fishing in London. This is largely because unscrupulous fishing operations are actively seeking out the ports of coastal states that are unable or unwilling to address the problem to land their ill-gotten catches.
“Illegal operators will take advantage of any weaknesses,” explained Per Erik Bergh, coordinator of Stop Illegal Fishing — an NGO tackling illegal fishing across African fisheries. “If there is a legal weakness they will find and target it to find where they can operate. If there are capacity shortages, operational opportunities or corruption — they will use them all to their advantage.”
Bergh also highlighted that the challenge is seldom just about illegal fishing and that “related activities” contribute greatly to the overall problem, including practices like fake vessel identity, flag-hopping and forgery.
Often, associated crimes such as the trafficking of drugs, arms and people also need to be factored in and such activities are more common today than they were four or five years ago, he said.
While there have long been high hopes that the Port State Measures Agreement, which entered into force on June 5, 2016, would have sufficient clout to deliver a mighty blow to illegal operations, there are several factors that are hindering its widespread implementation — limiting its ratification to just 42 parties so far, acknowledged Matthew Camilleri, a fishery liaison officer at the policy and economics branch of the FAO.
These obstructions include a lack of knowledge and appreciation of the impacts of IUU fishing and the benefits of PSMA; a lack of political will and a weak governance framework; insufficient operational capacity to conduct inspections and implement measures; a weak legislative framework for enforcement and prosecution; and concerns about both the financial implications and economic losses of such actions, he said.
Essentially, the PSMA aims to provide effective tools to prevent foreign fishing vessels engaged in IUU from using ports and landing their catches, thereby reducing the incentive to continue operating and subsequently blocking fishery products derived from IUU reaching national and international markets. As such, it is ideal foil for the EU’s IUU Regulation (2010) and the Action Plan introduced by the United States’ Presidential Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud (2015), which have so far proved the two most effective weapons in the war on the illegal fish trade from a market access perspective.
Camilleri maintains that the agreement is the best means to deny illegal fishers safe havens and access to markets and that capacity needs to be quickly built up, particularly in developing countries.
“Widespread global coverage of the implementation of PSMA is very important; we cannot leave any doors open — closing 49 doors out of 50 is not going to be effective because the 50th door will be used by IUU fishing vessels,” he said. “We also need to step up processes to assess the performance of various states. The flag state performance guidelines were a move in the right direction, but they need to be properly implemented and states need to be accountable. We also need to strengthen international cooperation — among countries and also among international organizations, and we need to have directed capacity development to focus specifically on what actions these countries are taking.”
From an operational standpoint, the main benefits to PSMA implementation are to share and cross-check information as well as joining up port, coastal, flag and market states with practical applications. Crucially, it also establishes a system of inter-agency cooperation to deal with associated, transnational crimes, said Bergh.
“Ultimately, we need to make more information available and to share more information. By doing that, we are in a position to combat IUU fishing,” he said.
In the meantime, the first official gathering of the parties ratified to the PSMA will take place in Oslo, Norway, on May 29-31. The meeting is expected to revue the responsibilities of the port states, the flag states, RFMOs, the FAO and other international organizations and discuss the electronic transfer of information between national authorities and designated ports relating to inspection results.
Also on the agenda are the possible development of a global electronic exchange information system, the requirements of developing states and ways in which the implementation of the PSMA can be monitored and which processes are going to be reviewed and assessed. Furthermore, funding mechanisms that support developing countries to implement the agreement will be established.
“While June 5, 2016, was an important date, we need to move ahead — beyond the entry into force of PSMA,” said Camilleri. “Parties want to meet and there is a lot of momentum. Developing countries want to improve so we should capitalize on this very important moment.”
He also highlighted that the plan to make 5 June an annual international day that observes the fight against IUU fishing has received the support of RFMOs and has been adopted by the FAO Council. The UN General Assembly will take a decision on the initiative’s implementation later this year.