OpinionFlourishing Oceans19 Mar 2019

Estimating the world’s vulnerability to illegal fishing is the first step, now we need to act

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is devastating our oceans. Reducing its impact requires understanding and eliminating the factors that enable it.

Indonesian authorities destroy illegal foreign fishing vessels in the waters off Belawan in Medan, North Sumatra province, on April 1, 2017. Photo Credit: Gatha Ginting.

Catches in many of the world’s fisheries are falling, putting food security, livelihoods, and the health of our oceans at risk. There are many reasons why these fisheries are in decline, but a key problem is illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which dramatically undermines global efforts towards sustainable seafood and food security. To begin to reverse the damage done to our oceans we must reduce the factors that enable IUU fishing to continue.

Quantifying illegal fishing vs identifying the causes

The first, and last, global estimate of IUU fishing, published in 2009, suggested it costs the world between US$10  billion and US$23.5 billion annually. Problematically, this cost is disproportionately borne by resource-rich but capacity-poor developing countries. Given the estimate is now ten years old, it is likely well out of date considering the dynamic nature of IUU fishing. As any fisheries scientist can tell you, fish are always on the move in the ocean, and so are the fishers chasing them.

Quantifying the scale and cost of IUU fishing activity is clearly important, but IUU fishing is a dynamic, and ever-changing behaviour that often frustrates global attempts at measurement. A step towards reducing IUU fishing is to take a more solution-oriented approach that focuses on understanding the risk factors associated with IUU fishing, and closing the net on the different conditions that enable it to continue. The recently launched IUU Fishing Index seeks to do this.

Comprised of 40 different indicators, the index rates the vulnerability of 152 maritime countries to the threat of IUU fishing. Vulnerabilities are calculated in three areas that emphasize a country’s different spheres of responsibility: coastal (management of its own waters), flag (supervision of the vessels registered to that country), and port (control of the vessels, and fish, moving into and out of its ports).

What makes a country vulnerable to IUU

While the factors that enable IUU fishing are nearly as abundant as fish in the sea, some are more easily identified and, potentially, solved than others. For instance, small island states in the Pacific have very large exclusive economic zones (i.e. the waters over which they have control and jurisdiction), but little to no capacity to patrol them. No easy solutions exist to close these holes in the enforcement net, but emerging satellite-based approaches that monitor vessels’ onboard tracking systems, such as Global Fishing Watch, have the potential to increase these countries’ maritime awareness.

Increasing enforcement at sea typically requires a significant hike in effort and resources, but countries can reduce their vulnerability to IUU fishing by adopting comparatively straightforward shore-based measures, such as the international Port States Measures Agreement (PSMA). By targeting the points where illegally caught fish first enter our supply chains, the PSMA is a key step on the journey to clear the murky waters that allow IUU fishing to continue in our world’s oceans.

Countries can also designate specific ports for foreign vessels, which further increases oversight on the foreign fleets that often operate with impunity in developing countries’ waters. Or, countries can go as far as to take a page from Indonesia’s book and simply ban all foreign fishing fleets from their waters, a move that has given Indonesia a massive head start in rebuilding its fisheries.  

Bringing IUU fishing out of the shadows

These are just a few examples of the conditions that enable IUU fishing, and the actions that can be used to home in on illegal fishers. Many more exist, and the IUU Fishing Index represents an important first step in compiling and bringing all these different IUU indicators under one digital roof. A well-designed web portal allows users to visualise how each country rates generally, and more specifically, on each of its responsibilities as they relate to IUU fishing.

One point that stands out when you look at the index rankings is that flag states at high risk of supporting IUU fishing are generally failing to provide enough oversight of their fleets’ fishing behaviour. This emphasises the need for countries to break free from an “out of sight out of mind” approach to activities on the ocean that has persisted in the fishing industry for far too long.

We are living in a world where technology, trade, and tools like the IUU Fishing Index can be used to increase transparency in our world’s fisheries. Minderoo’s Flourishing Oceans initiative will add a vital missing piece, The Global Fishing Index (GFI). The GFI will create a comprehensive picture of the status of the world’s marine fisheries, and identify needs and gaps in fisheries governance that can be addressed to reduce overfishing. The GFI will highlight successes in IUU fishing reduction, and allow us to see how improved management and governance can deliver much-needed outcomes in our oceans.

Learning from the EU

The information provided by the IUU Fishing Index and the GFI is a crucial first step in assessing the state of our oceans, however both indexes must drive global action. The European Union’s ‘red card’ sanctioning system is a great example of the power trading relationships can exert in the world’s fisheries.

If a country cannot control IUU fishing that falls under their responsibility, the EU can issue a warning (yellow card) telling them to clean up their act or face the alternative of having their fish banned from entry to the EU (red card). Losing access to the world’s largest seafood import market carries weight, the EU accounts for around 30 per cent of the global trade.

This carding system has already spurred significant progress in fisheries governance and management in multiple countries including Thailand, Sri Lanka, Belize, and Fiji. If similar sanctioning systems were put in place by other major importing countries, including the US and Japan, as well as by the major companies that handle, process, or sell seafood, the momentum of declining fish stocks could be halted.  

From Indexes to Action

Increasing transparency around who is catching what, when, where, and under what licenses (or not) in our oceans will go a long way towards reducing IUU fishing and rebuilding the world’s fish stocks. However, the data provided by the IUU Fishing Index and the GFI can only do so much. This information must be leveraged.

These tools will only be effective if they are embraced by the policymakers and industry leaders entrusted with the task of ensuring the future of our fisheries and our oceans. Those people will determine the livelihoods and food security of the billions who rely on the continued health of our world’s fish stocks.