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Ending Rogue Fishing

LONDON – 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.

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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, which has an estimated value of $15-23 billion a year.

Collaboration among the US, the European Union, and Japan has the potential to underpin great strides in addressing the problem. The US imports more than 90% of its seafood. Japan is the second-largest seafood importer after the US. And the EU is the world’s largest single market for seafood products, importing about 60% of the fish it consumes. The potential power of these three markets’ joint action is immense.

In late 2011, the EU and the US 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 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 US 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 US president underscores the need for governments to mobilize their resources and collaborate internationally.

A variety of approaches is called for. The EU’s regulations are perhaps the strongest suite of measures to stop illicitly caught fish from entering the market. Early implementation shows great promise. European regulators have already introduced sophisticated monitoring and surveillance programs, blocked market access to countries with a record of illegal fishing, penalized European rogue operators, and helped support “yellow or red carded” countries reform their fisheries laws.

The EU, Japan, and the US would be even more effective if they aligned their policies to prevent criminals from accessing their markets and enabled legitimate operators to benefit from a “supercharged” level of access. Working together could enable the use of affordable, sophisticated technology for seafood traceability – data and intelligence gathering that helps pinpoint exactly where seafood comes from, and when and by whom it was caught. Such efforts – for example, the electronic documentation scheme for the Atlantic bluefin tuna catch– represent one of the most effective tools to eliminate illicit fishing.

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Eliminating rogue fishing will help replenish marine life and secure food and livelihoods for billions of people. This must be accompanied by increased efforts, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, to protect key species affected by fishing practices and establish fully protected marine reserves or “regeneration zones” to help restock and restore habitats. Countries must also enact and implement laws ending overfishing within domestic and international waters.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is a problem that can be solved through leadership, action, and international cooperation. We are pleased to see Chile – which is hosting this year’s Our Ocean Conference – demonstrate leadership and commitment to action by ratifying the PSMA and standing up to illicit fishing operations. We remain optimistic that others will continue to take the steps needed to end the scourge of rogue fishing and work together to regenerate ocean life globally.