- Ecuador has committed to greater transparency in its fishing industry, under a new global initiative aimed at sustainability through better management.
- Under its commitment to the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI), Ecuador must grant public access to information related to the management of the country’s marine resources.
- Journalists, civil society groups and even other government agencies have long had their information requests to the fisheries ministry rejected or ignored, and say they hope this will now change.
Ecuador has become the first Latin American country to join a growing international effort aimed at bringing greater transparency to the fishing industry and making it more sustainable.
In a March 11 announcement, the Ecuadoran government committed to implementing the standards of the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI). The announcement was made in the coastal town of Manta, an important fishing port that’s home to part of Ecuador’s tuna fleet, and where fishers also land protected species such as hammerhead sharks.
Nicolás Rovegno, regional coordinator of FiTI for Latin America, said the importance of this commitment lies in the need to make information about fisheries transparent to tackle overfishing, illegal fishing and opacity in the industry.
The decision has been widely welcomed, with journalists, civil society organizations, institutions and even governmental authorities saying they have long seen their requests for fisheries information go answered. This difficulty accessing official data extends to information about the harvesting of threatened species, which is needed to identify population declines.
With this commitment, the Ecuadoran government will have to publish and give access to all the information that the FiTI standard defines as necessary, including fishing licenses, vessel records, catch data, subsidies, and final beneficiaries.
The benefits of transparency for fisheries
WWF reported in 2020 that 94% of fish populations in Ecuador are either fully exploited or overfished. Improving the situation and guaranteeing the sustainable management of marine fisheries is necessary to satisfy the economic and nutritional needs of millions of people in the world.
In this context, the governments have an important role to develop appropriate management plans for marine resources under the FiTI framework, and must also make information transparent so that this management can be overseen.
Pablo Guerrero, director of marine landscape conservation at WWF Ecuador, said making information about fishing activities and their impacts public is “the only way to guarantee the long-term sustainability of fish populations and the integrity of marine ecosystems.” Greater openness can “stimulate an active demand for accountability, contributing to improved decision-making in fisheries management,” according to FiTI.
Rovegno said the initiative was born from the recognition that a lack of transparency “makes negative processes easier, like illegal fishing, overfishing, wrongly directed subsidies, or overexploitation of resources.”
In the specific case of Ecuador, joining FiTI can also contribute to resolving the “yellow card” issued by the European Union in 2019 to spur the country to “step up their efforts and implement the necessary reforms to fight against IUU fishing,” or illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. If Ecuador fails to address its shortcomings of control and transparency in the fishing sector, it could be liable to a “red card,” which would prohibit it from exporting fisheries products to the EU.
Deficiencies in transparency
Ecuador has had legislation on transparency and access to information on the books since May 18, 2004. The law guarantees access to information sources so that civil society can exercise its constitutional right to oversight and control of public issues and public workers. As a general principle, all public information may be accessed freely, including all information stored in any format that is disclosed or falls under companies, bodies, institutions and state corporations or corporations that operate with state funds.
Under this law, the only information classified as secret by the National Security Council for reasons of national security is considered confidential. No other information may be classified as protected, reserved, vetoed or inadmissible.
This includes information related to fisheries, yet it remains common for the relevant state institutions not to grant free access to that information, particularly to journalists. That’s according to an investigation by Periodistas sin Cadenas, a foundation that promotes the free exercise of investigative journalism and defends freedom of the press and expression.
At the event announcing Ecuador’s commitment to FiTI, the deputy minister for aquaculture and fisheries, Andrés Arens, said that “being part of the FiTI initiative renews the aphorism by which transparency is a value that isn’t presumed but shown. As a government we reiterate our commitment of managing fisheries responsibly and transparently.”
Arens reiterated this point in an interview with Mongabay Latam, saying that “information must be transparent and be available to the public so that these issues can be discussed and debated.”
However, in 2021, Mongabay Latam submitted six interview and information requests, via Arens himself and the communications director at the fisheries ministry, and received no answers. Other journalists said they haven’t received any responses to their requests for fishing-related information.
Franklin Vega, editor of Bitácora Ambiental, an environmental news site, said he has requested fishing vessel logs from the fisheries ministry multiple times, sailing guides and the complete registry of the country’s longline vessels, but that he was met with “absolute silence.”
Manuel Novik, journalist with digital platform Plan V, said he had requested fishing records in connection with an investigation about the increase in shark exports from Ecuador but that his requests were ignored or rejected.
It was a similar story for Diana Romero, an independent journalist who recently published an investigation about the fishing of hammerhead sharks in Ecuador; the species is protected and its capture is banned.
The difficulties in accessing public information isn’t a problem only for journalists; even other government institutions say they haven’t been able to access it either. David Veintimilla, a protected-areas specialist and expert on wildlife trade convention CITES at the environment ministry, requested information about the total capture of shark species in 2021 from the fisheries ministry. He wanted to analyze why exports of fins from protected shark species had increased in 2021. Veintimilla submitted his request in September of 2021, but didn’t receive a response until Feb. 28, 2022.
When asked about this specific case, Arens asked for more information. According to him, his ministry had “delivered all the information we have available in the format that it is available in,” and that “it isn’t usual that we won’t answer this type of communications, especially in topics as sensitive as this one.” Mongabay Latam sent to Arens the article in which Veintimilla talks about this. However, he didn’t send any information back by the time this article was originally published in Spanish.
As part of the FiTI initiative, Ecuador will have to present a plan for improving transparency with deadlines and actions to take. In turn, FiTI’s management board will have to assess annually whether there’s been any continued improvement, so that the country can still be part of the initiative.
FiTI’s Rovegno said the first step Ecuador will take is to establish a national working group “with the participation of civil society, the government and industry with equitable representation” to define which actions the country will implement to improve transparency. Rovegno also said FiTI expects to publish a diagnosis about the state of transparency of Ecuador’s fisheries to define the starting point for improvement.
For now, the fisheries ministry has created a micro site with information about rules, ban periods and fishing vessels, and says it expects to have a system for public access ready this year, containing information about the traceability of marine products. This system, Arens told Mongabay, will allow anyone who eats Ecuadoran tuna to scan a QR code and find out how it was captured.
Banner image of silky sharks, a common bycatch in the tuna fishing industry. Image by José Villacreces.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on March 29, 2022.