Global partners for global challenges: The need for European and Asian fishing nations to prioritise transparency

Date: October 17, 2018

Source: EJF, PEW, Oceana, TNC and WWF

The 12th Asia-Europe Meeting and the 9th Republic of Korea-EU bilateral summit, both held this week in Brussels, offer crucial opportunities for Europe and Asia – both giants of the fishing industry – to work together to rebuild global marine resources. Increasing transparency on fishing activity is a vital step to safeguard our oceans to protect the rights of legitimate fishers and communities that rely on them for nutrition and livelihoods. To achieve that, the Environmental Justice Foundation, Oceana, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Nature Conservancy and WWF are calling for stronger legislation and country leadership to enhance transparency in fisheries management.

Overfishing is still a major threat to the world’s fish stocks, with many on the brink of collapse. 33% of fish stocks are being exploited at unsustainable levels, with a further 60% considered maximally sustainably fished. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing only exacerbates these alarming figures and undermines any efforts to manage global fisheries sustainably. It is key that major markets, such as the EU and Asia, or any flag state whose fishing vessels operate in the global oceans, view overfishing and IUU fishing as global challenges that need global solutions.

South Korea is a good example of a country in transition. It has a large distant water fleet that was plagued by allegations of IUU fishing. In response, the country developed and implemented bold policies to monitor and control its vessels. 2015 marked a decisive turning point after which all Korean fishing vessels were required to have vessel tracking devices and strict penalties for serious infringements were introduced.

However, more action is needed, not only in Korea, but also across Europe and the rest of Asia – and increased transparency offers one of the best tools against the opacity in the fishing industry that allows illegal operators to thrive. What is more, it can be achieved with a series of simple, low-cost measures that can be implemented immediately.

Control agencies can only do so much, particularly when fleets are scattered across the oceans and jurisdictions, with seafood products entering various supply chains that spread around the globe. Enhanced transparency offers a cost-effective and efficient means for government agencies, industry and other stakeholders to leverage limited assets to combat IUU fishing.

For example, Thailand took the bold step in August 2018 to publish a digital fishing vessel licence list, whilst in early 2018, the EU committed to building a public database of authorisations for vessels fishing outside EU waters. These inexpensive actions ensure that anyone – from coastal states to seafood distributors to consumers – can instantly check the validity of a vessel’s authorisation with the click of a mouse.

In addition to publishing lists of authorised vessels, the mandatory use of unique vessel identification numbers – which stay with vessels from shipyard to scrapyard – is another important step towards a more transparent fishing industry. Such schemes, in particular the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Numbers, allow interested parties to keep track of vessels even when they try to evade scrutiny by changing names or flags.

The IMO numbering scheme is also crucial for the Global Record of Fishing Vessels to be a success. This management tool was launched by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in July this year, but only 8,400 vessels have been added to the database so far. From airplanes to commercial vessels, almost every other similar sector uses registers to ensure important assets are tracked through their life, and this should be required for the entire fisheries sector too. Key fishing nations should supply data without delay, including information on fishing authorisations to provide vital impetus towards establishing this important tool.

The Korea-EU bilateral Summit is a key opportunity for Korea to reaffirm its commitment to combatting IUU fishing and to show leadership in global fisheries governance by embracing transparency. EJF, Oceana, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Nature Conservancy and WWF hope that this event will encourage the Republic of Korea to make its fishing vessels registry and authorisation lists public; and although most of South Korea’s fleet already has IMO numbers, the country would send a powerful message by making IMO numbers mandatory for the entire distant water fleet as well.

After having massively invested in more traditional means to combat illegal fishing, such as increased monitoring, control and surveillance, making its fleet more transparent is a natural next step for South Korea. It is also a virtually cost-free reform that would make the country a regional leader in fisheries fleet transparency.