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International treaty targeting illegal fishing takes effect

  • Illegal fishing puts the world’s already-strained fish stocks at risk, capturing as much as 26 million metric tons of fish valued at up to $23 billion each year.
  • The treaty, known officially as the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing, will enter into force this Sunday, June 5.
  • It represents an international effort to shore up the global seafood supply by preventing vessels from landing illegal catches.

A United Nations treaty aimed at preventing illegal fishing will enter into force this Sunday, June 5, with 29 countries and the European Union as parties to it.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing puts the world’s already-strained fish stocks at risk, each year capturing as much as 26 million metric tons of fish valued at up to $23 billion.

“Illegal fishing steals billions of dollars’ worth of resources from our ocean each year, hurting those who play by the rules,” U.S. secretary of state John Kerry said in a press release about the treaty.

Officially titled the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing, the treaty represents an international effort to shore up the global seafood supply by preventing vessels from landing illegal catches. Significantly, it commits countries hosting ports of entry to deter IUU fishing vessels, rather than relying on the vessels’ flag states to police their fleets.

Yu Feng, a Taiwanese-flagged vessel suspected of fishing illegally, sails near Sierra Leone in 2009 before being detained by the U.S. Coast Guard and Sierra Leonean government. Photo by U.S. Department of Defense/Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Eggert, U.S. Coast Guard.

Each party to the treaty agrees to assess whether fishing boats entering their ports have engaged in IUU fishing by examining the boats’ paperwork, and if necessary their gear and cargo. If authorities determine that the fish was caught illegally, the boat can’t offload its catch, take on fuel or supplies, or receive other services, forcing it to find another place to dock. Port countries then share information about illegally operating vessels with other relevant countries, including the vessels’ flag states.

Bouncing from port to port will waste precious time and money for IUU fishing vessels. By giving these boats fewer places to dock, countries hope to limit the amount of illegal seafood on sale and ultimately deincentivize IUU fishing altogether.

Each party to the treaty must pass its own laws to put the treaty’s measures in place, but “countries are free to adopt more stringent measures,” according to an FAO web page.

The treaty was adopted by a conference of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2009, but was set to enter into force only after a certain number of parties signed on, a milestone reached in May.

The agreement is “a pretty serious step forward,” Henrik Österblom, the deputy science director at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, told Mongabay. In the past, he noted, initiatives to reduce illegal fishing have been taken on the national or regional level. This treaty is different. “The really nice thing with this agreement is it shows a commitment to address [a] global problem,” Österblom said.

The agreement isn’t perfect as far as Rashid Sumaila, the director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, is concerned. While its measures are powerful, he told Mongabay, they can only make so much impact if just a few dozen countries adopt them. “Only 30 countries have signed on at the moment, so there are holes—there are countries that will take the [illegally caught] fish,” Sumaila said.

Some countries with a large share of the world’s fish market, such as the United States, have signed on to the treaty, but without other global players like China and Russia, the approach will remain “piecemeal,” Sumaila said. Together, the 30 current parties to the treaty account for over 62 percent of global fish imports and 49 percent of exports, according to an FAO press release.

Even the relatively low-resource tactic of checking vessels at ports isn’t the best way to snare illegal fishermen, Österblom said. “The most effective way is to have monitoring capacity on the water, but that’s incredibly costly,” he said.

Ideally, satellite technology would allow authorities to track ships to make sure they’re not doing anything illegal. That, in concert with a crackdown at ports and monitoring by non-government entities like the fishing industry and nonprofits, could truly eradicate illegal fishing, Österblom added.

In the meantime, Sumaila said, the treaty could serve as a starting point, acting as a “moral statement for the world” and giving activists and civil society a platform through which to push more drastic measures against illegal fishing in the years to come.

“There’s something here,” Sumaila said of the treaty. “It’s a little step forward, but if we don’t push it further it doesn’t do much good.”