Seafood is by far the most highly traded commodity globally, feeding billions of people worldwide. Unfortunately, however, the industry is plagued by illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, which undermines conservation efforts and handicaps honest fishers and businesses that follow the rules. It is high time to address the problem.
Rogue fishing accounts for up to one-fifth of all ocean fish caught globally. And while there have been encouraging signs of reform in some countries’ industrial-scale fisheries, the problem remains widespread, discouraging others from following suit and impeding the reform of small-scale fisheries that supply food and livelihoods for millions of families.
Rules do exist, but they need to be clearer and more specific, effectively enforced, and implemented across national borders. If not, unscrupulous operators will continue to take advantage of the lack of regulation and monitoring, with huge implications for those who depend on coastal fisheries for their sustenance and livelihoods.
A recent study found that 20-32% of seafood imported into the United States was likely from illegal, unreported and unregulated sources. This alone accounts for 4-16% of the value of the total illegal fish catch worldwide, estimated at $15-23 billion a year.
Collaboration among the United States, the European Union and Japan has the potential to underpin great strides in addressing the problem. The United States imports more than 90 percent of its seafood. Japan is the second-largest seafood importer after the United States. And the EU is the world’s largest single market for seafood products, importing about 60 percent of the fish it consumes. The potential power of these three markets’ joint action is immense.
In late 2011, the EU and the United States agreed to collaborate to combat illicit fishing. A little less than a year later, the EU and Japan agreed to prevent imports of illegally caught seafood, share information, and work together at regional fisheries-management organizations. They all agreed to encourage other countries to ratify and implement the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), which will make it harder for dishonest fishing operations to operate.
Illicit fishing operations rely on a range of tactics and loopholes in international law to get their products to market. Ports known for lax enforcement or limited inspection capacity are a prime pathway for unethical fishermen and companies to move their catch from ship to shelf.
Adopted in 2009 by the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization, the PSMA requires parties to implement stricter controls on foreign-flagged fishing vessels. To date, 13 countries have ratified the agreement; another 12 must do so for it to enter into force and be globally effective.
Encouragingly, rogue fishing is no longer viewed as an orphan policy issue in some countries. In March, the U.S. Presidential Task Force on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud released an “all of government” action plan. The fact that the issue made it to the desk of the U.S. president underscores the need for governments to mobilize their resources and collaborate internationally.