Fishing Under Private Agreements Needs to Move Out of the Shadows

Date: January 13, 2017

Source: Oceana
Author: Vanya Vulperhorst

EU vessels operate outside EU waters under different authorisation types. The EU, on behalf of its member states signs public access agreements (also called Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements or SFPAs) with a non-EU coastal State. Under these official EU agreements the EU pays non-EU coastal States to allow its vessels to fish surplus[i] stocks in their exclusive economic zone (EEZ)[ii]. EU operators wishing to fish under SFPAs must pay a fee for their catches and comply with certain eligibility criteria (such as demonstrating a clean record of compliance with EU and international laws on their previous fishing activities) in order to apply for the fishing authorisation from their flag State.

In contrast, some EU operators negotiate directly with the government of the non-EU coastal State for access to fisheries resources in their EEZ. Such agreements are called private, or direct agreements. The vessels fishing under this type of authorisation fly the flags of EU member states and their catches have equal access to the EU market as those under the public access agreements, although they are not subject to the same strict standards, hereby distorting the level playing field.

The opacity of these agreements make it difficult for the EU flag State, and impossible for the European Commission or a non-EU country with a fishing or management interest in the same stocks, to make sure the activities under private agreements are carried out in a legal and sustainable way. Currently, no common procedures exist to ensure that these activities are in line with EU laws and adhere to the standards of the Common Fisheries Policy. In addition, effective oversight of the vessels fishing under such agreements is hampered by the absence of a requirement to report details of the private agreements to the EU flag State and the European Commission, or to make key information publicly available. There is currently no public information on the number of vessels fishing under such agreements, as well as on the fishing area, period, gear, target species or record of catches.

Another relatively common type of private agreements are chartering agreements, under which EU-flagged vessels fish a share of the resources of a non-EU coastal State’s EEZ in collaboration with local companies. Lack of transparency of information and of proper verification of the fishing record under this type of authorisation is a serious loophole negatively impacting effective management and conservation measures, and it could potentially lead to overfishing of local resources.

Results of an analysis of EU vessels fishing under private agreements

To obtain more specific information on fishing activities under private agreements between EU operators and third countries, Oceana, together with its partners, submitted a formal access to information request to all EU member states with vessels operating in non-EU waters.

A review was also carried out of information on private agreements in the public domain. The analysis focused on data for the period 2010-2016 and mainly consisted of agreements for tuna species. The results showed that certain parts of the EU tuna and pelagic fleet are engaged in private agreements. The review also revealed that fishing vessels flagged to Spain and France were particularly active in non-EU waters under such agreements. While there is limited data on agreements for species other than tuna, the information available to this review indicates that the total number of EU vessels fishing under private agreements could be significant.

What needs to change?

To improve these standards, ensure effective control and create a sound legal framework coherent with EU standards and laws, it is essential that private and chartering agreements:

  • adhere to the same standards as public access agreements (SFPAs). This would ensure the fishing activities are more transparent, legal and sustainable and comply with EU fisheries, environmental and labour laws
  • meet strict eligibility criteria (e.g. provide IMO numbers, prove no prior involvement in i) IUU fishing operations, ii) a serious infringement of EU fisheries law or iii) abusive reflagging activities) before being granted an authorisation to fish outside EU waters
  • make key information of such agreements publicly available via a register of external fishing authorisations in order to improve the transparency and accountability of fishing activities.

The revision of the external fishing fleet regulation presents a key opportunity to ensure this[iii]. On December 5th, the Members of the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament voted on the European Commission’s proposal. In its first vote, the Committee agreed on a series of tight measures that support stronger transparency and sustainability of private and chartering agreements. After passing through the Committee, the proposal will be voted on next at the plenary meeting of the European Parliament on February 1st.

Learn more on private and chartering agreements from our factsheet 

*Oceana is part of a coalition of non-governmental organisations that is working to secure the harmonised and effective implementation of the European Union’s Regulation to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

[i] Surplus of allowable catch means the portion of the allowable catch that a coastal State does not harvest, which results in an overall exploitation rate for individual stocks that remains below levels at which stocks are capable of restoring themselves and the maintenance of populations of harvested species above desired levels based on the best available scientific advice;

[ii] EEZ: A zone under national jurisdiction (up to 200-nautical miles wide) declared in line with the provisions of 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, within which the coastal State has the right to explore and exploit, and the responsibility to conserve and manage, the living and non-living resources (FAO Fisheries Glossary)

[iii] Proposal for a regulation on the sustainable management of external fishing fleets (2015/636 COD)

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