Maritime Affairs and Fisheries
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The force behind good ocean governance

The force behind good ocean governance

On Tuesday, April 21st, the Brussels Seafood Expo Global will host a debate entitled “EU Markets Driving Good Governance in Fisheries”. The talk, led by European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Karmenu Vella, will address the issue of illegal fishing and the steps taken by the EU to fight it. Guus Pastoor, President of the European Fish Processors Association, will speak about labelling in relation to illegal fishing. Other speakers will include Korean Vice-Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Kim Young-Suk as well as top representatives of NGOs and of the British Retail Consortium.

The EU is the largest seafood importer in the world by value, importing 24% of the global total, and as such wields considerable power to change behaviours and promote good governance through international trade incentives. Prior to the Regulation that came into force in 2010, an estimated €1.1 billion worth of illegally caught fish may have been imported into the EU. 

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The University of British Columbia estimates the global losses due to illegal fishing at $10-23 billion a year, or up to 26 million tonnes of fish – i.e. at least 15% of the world’s catches. Aside from the financial implications, illegal fishing depletes fish stocks and damages ocean ecosystems. The vessels implicated in these activities seem to be also linked to other forms of organised crime; human rights violations are not uncommon aboard them.


According to Tony Long, Director of the Global Campaign to End Illegal Fishing, “To deter illegal fishing requires a shift from business as usual, in which illegal fishing is a low-risk, high-reward activity, to one where the threat of sanctions is real and the opportunity to exploit the system is not worth the cost.”

This is precisely what the Regulation has been doing in recent years. It allows access onto the EU market only to fisheries products that have been certified as legal by the flag state concerned. To enter, the fish must come from an authorised country, be produced in a registered establishment under EU sanitary rules, have the proper catch and health certificates and pass the EU’s border inspection.

These requirements apply to all landings and transhipments of EU and third-country fishing vessels in EU ports (in parallel, all operations of EU fishing vessels are strictly controlled by virtue of another act, known as the Control Regulation). And as the ultimate responsibility rests with them, importers can insist that the exporter document the legality of the fish – otherwise they refuse the batch. Sanctions can equally be imposed on the flag State concerned.

What happens when a nation is unable to certify its products? The European Commission offers help and assistance to improve the country's management and control system, which it has done with 50 countries so far. If that fails, the Commission issues a warning (or "yellow card") and starts a formal procedure of dialogue and cooperation with the country's authorities. 18 yellow cards have been issued to date. After six months, it's a green card if issues are solved or a red card if they aren’t – the latter leading to a trade ban.

In other words the scheme has a twofold advantage. It ensures that the marine fishery products on sale on the EU market are fully traceable so that consumers can be reassured about what they buy. But more generally, it drives third countries to comply with national and international norms of conservation and management. The process of cooperation has led to many structural changes in the legal and fisheries management systems of several countries, including lately Korea and the Philippines.

And faced with the prospect of no trade, as many as 91 countries have complied with international and EU standards since 2010. This means significant progress in the clampdown of illegal fishing on the global arena. “It all comes down to using our market power and market laws – says Commissioner Vella – and it works. When it comes to improving world ocean governance, it doesn’t get more concrete than this. The EU is leading the way, and making a real difference.”

Up until now, this enforcement action has been concentrated mainly on the West Africa or the Pacific region because here illegal activities are particularly widespread and take the heaviest toll on marine resources and local communities.

But in parallel, the Commission has also intensified multilateral work within regional organisations and with the UN, FAO, OECD and Interpol; and it has stepped up bilateral cooperation with major partners such as the USA, Japan and China. It also works closely with the industry and other interested parties.

Large retailers, for instance, are increasingly aware that they, too, must commit to the cause if they are to ensure the longevity of stocks. Illegal products in the supply chain are now increasingly seen as harmful to the brand and to product integrity.

The British Retail Consortium, which will be represented at the Seafood Expo Global meeting, has published its own guide against illegal fishing and recommends among others an identification number for vessels, to enable satellite tracking and an EU database of fish catches.

“We urgently need transparency and traceability in the seafood food supply chain,” said Steve Trent, Executive Director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, which helped compile the guide. “The technology and management instruments now exist to do this. What is needed now is the full engagement of the corporate sector, alongside government and other key stakeholders. Pirate fishing vessels are devastating fish stocks and all too often stealing from some of the poorest people on the planet.”

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