Author: Mercedes Rosello
Whilst the EU IUU Regulation has been a pioneering initiative placing the EU at the helm of the global fight against IUU fishing, one challenge that continues to mar efforts to address IUU fishing across the EU is the identification of European interests behind IUU fishing operations.
Spain, the EU’s largest fishing nation and a flagship State in EU fisheries, has been at the forefront of the EU to elaborate and implement domestic legislation specifically addressing this problem. The legal measures have resulted in an improved ability by the Spanish government to establish controls over nationals involved in fisheries outside EU waters as well as to sanction them. The legislation has recently been put to the test through two investigations: Operations Sparrow and Sparrow 2.
The events preceding the launch of Operation Sparrow involved several notorious IUU fishing vessels with suspected links to Spanish interests inside and outside the EU. Operating with different names and under different flags, the vessels had repeatedly been observed engaging in unauthorised capture activities in the area of the Southern Ocean managed by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
In January 2015, the New Zealand Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel HMNZS Wellington intercepted two of the vessels, at the time apparently flagged to Equatorial Guinea. Shortly afterwards, Interpol purple notices were issued to seek information on the individuals and networks behind the vessels Kunlun, Yongding and Songhua. Kunlun arrived in Thailand in March, where authorities detained the vessel after it declared a false cargo, name and flag. Songhua and Yongding were detained in Cape Vert in May. The three vessels were subsequently found to have been operating alongside a reefer, the Tiantai, which tragically had sunk in Antarctic waters in 2014.
Operation Sparrow was publicly launched by the Spanish Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Environment, also in March. Dawn raids were carried out by the General Secretariat for Fisheries on several companies’ premises in Ribeira, Boiro and A Coruña. They were suspected of involvement with the IUU activities of the Kunlun, Songhua and Yongdin, as well as two other vessels, Thunder and Seabull, through a network of shell companies.
In July, the Ministry announced that a second and much larger investigation, named Operation Sparrow 2, had been launched, as different companies with suspected links to IUU fishing were being uncovered.
Whilst analysis of the evidence accessed under Sparrow 2 is still ongoing, Operation Sparrow has now concluded its pre-contestation phase. Findings, which have brought to fruition the efforts of Spain, New Zealand, Australia and other public and non-public actors, point at the existence of 48 infractions linked to the operation of the vessels Kunlun, Songhua, Yongdin and Tiantai. The Ministry’s penalty proposal pursuant to the operation’s findings is of €17,84 Million, the largest sanction against illegal fishing beneficiaries known to be imposed within the EU and possibly globally.
With this last move, Spain has sent an uncompromising message across the sector that those who repeatedly seek to flaunt the law will no longer be tolerated. Stopping pirate fishing is beneficial both for the environment and for honest fishing industry, and should be a priority for all countries in the EU. We congratulate the Ministry and the other parties involved and look forward to a successful outcome, and to the conclusion of Sparrow 2.
 Council Regulation (EC) No 1005/2008 of 29 September 2008 establishing a Community system to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, amending Regulations (EEC) No 2847/93, (EC) No 1936/2001 and (EC) No 601/2004 and repealing Regulations (EC) No 1093/94 and (EC) No 1447/1999; OJ L 286, 29.10.2008, p. 1–32.