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The world is waking up to the scourge of illegal fishing

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing boats are the new pirates

by Dominic Ziegler: Banyan columnist, The Economist

November 8th 2021

IT IS TIME to stop thinking of old-fashioned piracy as the worst scourge among all human activities taking place upon the ocean. In the Indian and Pacific Oceans and beyond, that dubious honour easily falls to those taking part in illicit fishing. What is known as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing accounts for 20-50% of the global catch (with the proportion probably highest in the once-rich waters of the Indo-Pacific).

IUU fishing, where operators lack licences, go after protected species or use too fine a net, is the chief driver behind plummeting fish stocks—just a fifth of commercial species are sustainably fished. That marks a precipitous decline that robs coastal states of over $20bn a year and threatens the livelihoods of millions of small-scale fishermen.

Worse, IUU operators are likely to be involved in other crimes, from finning sharks to running drugs. Tens of thousands of South-East Asian and African crews toil under conditions of debt bondage to Taiwanese, Chinese and other unscrupulous operators of big fleets. In the Pacific, on-board fisheries observers monitoring the catch are routinely murdered. Organised crime’s tentacles run deep into the fishing industry. IUU operators are the new pirates.

Thankfully, 2022 will mark a turning-point of sorts. Just before the start of the year a deal to force countries to end most of the harmful subsidies to their fisheries will be reached at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). That goal has eluded the global body until now, despite 20 years of negotiations. But as Santiago Wills, Colombia’s representative at the WTO, points out, in another 20 years there won’t be any fish left to argue over.

The holdouts, China and India, sensing reputations at stake, will give in. Doing away with fuel and other subsidies could close down half of long-distance fishing, predicts Enric Sala, National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence. That would include China’s environmentally devastating bottom-trawling off the west coast of Africa. Subsidies can be redirected towards protecting fish stocks and livelihoods, making 2022 the year, Mr Sala says, “when we begin replenishing the ocean instead of emptying it”. There are other hopeful signs. International momentum is building to protect and conserve 30% of the ocean by 2030.

Mark Zimring of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) highlights the convergence of advanced technology enabling better monitoring of fishing fleets, as retailers strive to keep IUU-caught fish out of their supply chains. The technology—from satellite imagery revealing “dark fleets” to on-board e-monitoring of catches using big data—will become commercially viable at scale in 2022, Mr Zimring predicts.

More light will be shone on murky global supply chains, too. Already, TNC has joined up with the tiny but fish-rich Marshall Islands to create a brand of tinned tuna with impeccably sustainable provenance. In late 2021 Walmart, an American supermarket chain, signed up to the initiative, introducing it as its house-brand tuna. In 2022 more retailers will adopt such a model. Sally Yozell of the Stimson Centre, an American think-tank, says that an approach emphasising traceability and transparency in seafood supply chains from when a fish is caught to when it arrives in America will force the whole global seafood market to clean up its act.

A final point of brightness is the growing international effort to go after the perpetrators on land responsible for organised crime at sea. The ultimate beneficiaries of ocean crime easily evade overstretched fisheries inspectors in ports, since they hide behind brass plates in opaque tax jurisdictions.

Hence the importance of international efforts such as the UN-backed Blue Justice Initiative, which encourages co-operation in the fight against transnational crime. Emma Witbooi, an expert in maritime law, says a third of all coastal nations could sign up to the Copenhagen declaration that underpins the initiative by the end of 2022. It is a long haul back to healthy seas, but the coming year could mark a promising start.

Dominic Ziegler: Banyan columnist, The Economist

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition of The World Ahead 2022 under the headline “Taking stock”.

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The world is waking up to the scourge of illegal fishing - the Economist 08.11.21
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