Tackling illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing: New approaches

15 July 2014

Illicit fishing activities are piling pressure on already fragile wild fish stocks and marine ecosystems as well as threatening important food supplies for local communities. Where might trade policy complement regional and international action to tackle the challenge? 

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing remains one of the greatest threats to marine ecosystems due to its potent ability to undermine national and regional efforts to manage fisheries sustainably as well as endeavours to conserve marine biodiversity. Driven by the promise of short-term economic gain, IUU fishing takes advantage of corrupt administrations and exploits weak management regimes, especially those of developing countries lacking the capacity and resources for effective monitoring, control, and surveillance (MCS). It is found in all types and dimensions of fisheries, occurs both on the high seas and in areas under national jurisdiction, concerns all aspects and stages of the capture and utilisation of fish, and may sometimes be associated with organized crime. Fisheries resources available to bona fide fishers are poached in a ruthless manner by IUU fishing, often leading to the collapse of local fisheries, with small-scale fisheries in developing countries proving particularly vulnerable. Products derived from IUU fishing can find their way into overseas trade markets thus throttling local food supply. IUU fishing therefore threatens livelihoods, exacerbates poverty, and augments food insecurity. It is well known that IUU fishing has escalated in the past 20 years, especially in high seas fisheries. Unfortunately the dynamic, adaptable, highly mobile, and clandestine nature of IUU fishing prevents a straightforward estimation of its impact. Rough calculations, however, indicate that IUU fishing across the world’s oceans weighs in at around 11–26 million tonnes of fish each year or a price tag of US$10–23 billion. [Ref 1]

In their fight against IUU activities, a number of importing countries of fish and fishery products have started to implement complementary measures that attempt to tackle the problem from a new angle, namely from a market and trade perspective.

Next port of call

In 2001, in light of the urgent need to address the issue, members of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) adopted the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IPOA–IUU). This voluntary instrument, concluded within the framework of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (the Code), is a toolbox for use by all members, whether general, flag states, coastal states, or port states. Mindful of the needs of developing economies, it calls upon all countries to develop and implement a consistent national plan of action for tackling IUU and highlights the central role played by Regional Fisheries Bodies (RFBs). Over the years, RFBs have engaged in vigorous campaigns to combat IUU fishing, and they have contributed extensively to the implementation of the IPOA–IUU. Efforts comprise strengthening MCS measures including port state measures, trade monitoring and control, listing of fishing vessels authorised to fish, listing of IUU fishing vessels, use of vessel monitoring system (VMS), establishment of dispute settlement processes, cooperation and coordination with other RFBs including information sharing on IUU fishing activities, joint enforcement activities, and the organisation of regional workshops.

Soon after adopting the IPOA–IUU, the international community recognised the importance of developing internationally agreed upon standards for the implementation of port state measures, already a central feature of the IPOA–IUU. Port state measures are actions taken by port states to tackle illegal fishing activities at landing point. Examples include outlining certain documentation requirements necessary in order to gain access to a port and its services. FAO members therefore began work on the drafting of a Model Scheme on Port State Measures to Combat IUU Fishing, concluded in 2005. This scheme was later taken to a higher level when it provided the basis for the drafting of the binding FAO Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (PSMA), approved at the FAO Conference in November 2009. The PSMA will enter into force 30 days after ratification by 25 parties. As of 1 July there have been 10 ratifications, acceptances, approvals or accessions. In addition, the US Senate ratified the PSMA in April 2014, but the legal instrument has yet to be deposited with the FAO.

The PSMA lays down a minimum set of standard measures for port states to apply when foreign vessels seek entry into port or while they are in port. Through the implementation of defined procedures to verify that such vessels have not engaged in IUU activities, fish caught through illegal activities can be blocked from reaching national and international markets. The PSMA also addresses the requirement for flag states to take certain actions, at the request of the port state, when vessels flying their flag are identified as participating in IUU fishing. In addition, it seeks to prevent the occurrence of “ports of non-compliance,” which do not conform to internationally-agreed upon port control and MCS standards, and also calls for effective cooperation and information exchange among parties, as well as with relevant international and regional organisations, including RFBs. The PSMA places a particular responsibility on Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) to foster cooperation among their members to implement regionally-agreed port state measures that are compliant with the provisions of the PSMA. Used in conjunction with other tools, such as catch documentation schemes, port state measures have the potential to be one of the most cost-effective and efficient means of combating IUU fishing. They could also play a valuable role in helping to boost countries’ compliance with conservation and management measures adopted by RFMOs. The PSMA, therefore, represents a multi-level tool that could scale-up international efforts to curb IUU fishing while also contributing to strengthened fisheries management and governance at all levels. 

To be effective, however, parties would need to move ahead with developing implementation strategies, supported by sound policy, legal and institutional frameworks, as well as operational mechanisms sustained by sufficient human and financial resources.The PSMA calls on parties to provide assistance to developing states, directly or through FAO and other international entities, to enhance their capacity to implement port state measures. It provides for the establishment of funding mechanisms for this purpose managed by an ad hoc working group set up specifically to address the needs of developing states that are party to the PSMA. In November 2011 FAO convened an informal open-ended technical meeting to review draft terms of reference for this working group. FAO’s Committee on Fisheries (COFI), a subsidiary body of the FAO Council, endorsed these terms in 2012.

Meanwhile, FAO has embarked on the delivery of a global series of regional capacity-development workshops, in collaboration with relevant regional and international organisations, to facilitate accession to the PSMA. The aim is to bring the PSMA into force as soon as possible and ensure that it receives the widest possible international acceptance. FAO’s guide to the background and implementation of the PSMA serves as a principal resource document during the workshops.

Vessels are governed by the states whose flag they are entitle to fly. These states – known as flag states - in turn have certain responsibilities under international law. Flag states have the potential to play an important complementary role in the implementation of effective port states measures to combat IUU fishing. In this context a technical consultation on flag state performance produced the “Voluntary Guidelines for Flag State Performance” (VGFSP) to prevent, deter, and eliminate IUU fishing through the effective implementation of flag state responsibilities. The agreed VGFSP – endorsed by COFI at its most recent session in June – are wide-ranging and address the purpose and principles, the scope of application, performance assessment criteria, cooperation between flag states and coastal states, a procedure for carrying out an assessment, encouraging compliance and deterring non-compliance by flag states, cooperation with and assistance to developing states with a view to capacity development, and the role of FAO. They are expected to provide a valuable tool for strengthening compliance by flag states with their international duties and obligations regarding the flagging and control of fishing vessels. Moreover, it is hoped that the VGFSP will encourage fisheries and maritime administrations to work more closely together, that national regimes and capacities will be strengthened, and RFMOs will play a meaningful role in using the voluntary guidelines to combat IUU fishing. [Ref 2]

Keeping track

A central challenge in addressing IUU fishing is that vessels caught fishing illegally can simply change their name – and thus their maritime ‘identity’ – thereby evading enforcement efforts. One way of closing this loophole is to allocate unique identification numbers to fishing vessels.

FAO is working in close collaboration with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on vessel identification and other measures to combat IUU fishing, particularly through the Joint FAO/IMO Ad Hoc Working Group on IUU Fishing and Related Matters. In 2013, the IMO Maritime Safety Committee approved a paper submitted by several IMO member states, together with FAO and WWF, proposing to extend the IMO ship identification numbering scheme to fishing vessels on a non-mandatory basis. The scheme now applies to both merchant ships and fishing vessels of 100 gross tonnage and above. This means the IMO number can be used as the global unique vessel identifier, recognised by COFI as a key component of the FAO Global Record of Fishing Vessels, Refrigerated Transport Vessels and Supply Vessels (the Global Record). The Global Record is one of the latest tools being developed by FAO to combat IUU fishing by making readily available information on vessels engaged in fishing and fishing-related activities, including, inter alia, on their operations, physical characteristics, ownership, flag history, track record, and previous convictions. The Global Record is expected to strengthen MCS schemes and serve as an important facilitating tool in the implementation of international instruments such as the PSMA and VGFSP.

Efforts towards achieving more sustainable fisheries have been aided by a number of market-based measures including certification schemes originating in the private sector. Although concerns have been raised regarding the proliferation of such schemes, the cost of certification, and whether the role of private organisations in certifying official fisheries management systems is fully appropriate, there can be no doubt that these initiatives have in many instances contributed to improved sourcing practices in the supply chain, and to more responsible harvesting operations.

Tackling IUU through trade policy

In their fight against IUU activities, a number of importing countries of fish and fishery products have started to implement complementary measures that attempt to tackle the problem from a new angle, namely from a market and trade perspective. The most prominent is the EU requirement on catch documentation stipulating that from January 2010 all fish and fishery products of wild origin imported into the EU must carry documentation testifying the legal origin of the catch. The catch documentation must be verified by the authority of the flag state and non-cooperating countries may be subject to import bans. Following through on this, Brussels has now designated Belize, Cambodia and Guinea as non-cooperative, meaning that seafood products from these countries can no longer be exported into the trade bloc. Brussels has also issued warnings to other fishing nations. Some countries, such as the USA, generate lists of vessels engaged in IUU fishing. Imports from non-cooperating countries may be denied entry to the US market while the vessels may be banned from US ports. In parallel, some countries and RFBs are implementing new and more advanced traceability schemes, including electronically based systems that vastly facilitate the collection and verification of catch data.

Many fishing and exporting countries, however, are concerned that such schemes could become unnecessary barriers to trade. The UN General Assembly Resolution on Sustainable Fisheries in December 2013 addressed the issue requesting member countries to assist the FAO in elaborating guidelines and other relevant criteria relating to catch documentation schemes. At its June session, COFI requested these to be in conformity with the provisions of relevant international law; not create unnecessary barriers to trade; follow the principle of equivalence; and be risk-based. They should be reliable, simple, clear, transparent, and electronic if possible. The assessment of schemes and formats shall include cost-benefit considerations and take into account catch documentation schemes already existing in certain member states, member organisations, and in the context of RFMOs. Countries are aiming for adoption of the catch documentation guidelines at COFI’s next session.

One interesting and quite recent development is the proposal by some countries to include fisheries management provisions, flag- and port-state responsibilities, trade and IUU fishing, as well as reporting mechanisms for fisheries subsidies in regional and bilateral trade agreements. In many cases, these inclusions go beyond the trading partners’ binding commitments under existing multilateral agreements and can be seen as an attempt to move the agenda forward in the absence of solutions at the multilateral level, or to implement on a bilateral basis measures that form part of international instruments not yet entered into force. While it is far too early to judge the impact of these provisions, the signal effect may be important as they highlight that fighting IUU activities is also a national and regional moral responsibility, whether or not action is anchored in international or multilateral agreements.

FAO members have repeatedly highlighted the persistent and detrimental problem of IUU fishing in their implementation of the Code and related instruments. Most members indicate that they have taken steps to develop national plans of action to deter, prevent, and eliminate IUU fishing, including improving MCS setups and introducing cross-border cooperation between authorities and legal framework improvements. This suggests that a global, firm, and growing commitment is in place to tackle IUU fishing. In addition, the toolbox available to policymakers in the fight against IUU fishing continues to be enriched by new and more effective instruments, ranging from measures affecting fisheries operations and management schemes to market- and trade-based measures. It is therefore a legitimate hope that concerted efforts by the international community at all levels will at last be able to effectively reduce and eradicate activities that for too long have been allowed to endanger the sustainability of fish stocks as well as the economic and social wellbeing of key stakeholders. 

This paper is an updated and expanded version of the IUU section in the chapter on governance and policy in the 2014 edition of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture flagship report.

[Ref 1] Agnew, D.J., Pearce, J., Pramod, G., Peatman, T., Watson, R., Beddington, J.R. & Pitcher, T.J. (2009), Estimating the worldwide extent of illegal fishing, PLoS ONE, 4(2).

[Ref 2] Bloomberg New Energy Finance/Ernst & Young (2013), South Korea’s Emissions Trading Scheme.

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