Will a New Treaty Slow Down Illegal Fishing?

File image courtesy NOAA

Published Jun 23, 2016 9:44 PM by The Maritime Executive

Early this month, the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) on combating illegal fishing went into effect, putting an array of new tools for coordination and action between nations to deny safe haven to fishing vessels operating outside the law. "The PSMA will drive the seafood industry toward greater sustainability and have significant ripple effects throughout the entire fisheries supply chain. Let no port state be known and targeted by [illegal] fishing operators as a shelter for non-compliance," said the director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Jose Graziano Da Silva, at a ceremony marking its entry into force. 

FAO estimates that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a $20 billion dollar-per-year industry, and says that in the pursuit of revenue, illegal operators endanger the health of local and national fisheries. In West Africa, two thirds of animal protein comes from fishing, and IUU operators (notably heavily subsidized Chinese firms) threaten to deplete stocks, potentially leading to food insecurity for populations ashore. It is a global problem, and the practice has led to dramatic disputes in territorial waters, with several recent incidents in which national military forces opened fire on Chinese distant-water fishing vessels suspected of illegal operation. Indonesia has even taken to the highly publicized practice of confiscating and blowing up IUU fishing vessels with explosives in an effort to deter future violations.

The new treaty attempts to hamper IUU operations by denying easy access to port facilities for suspected illegal operators. It requires that parties designate specific ports for use by foreign fishing vessels, making inspection and control easier, FAO says. These vessels must request permission to enter ports ahead of time and inform authorities about the fish they have on board. Once in port, they must permit inspection of their log book, licenses, fishing gear and actual cargo. Even vessels that are just refueling will have to comply with inspection requirements –and the measures also apply to fishing tenders, vessels which support fishing activities by providing refueling and ship-to-ship fish cargo transfers at sea. 

Additionally, the treaty asks ratifying countries to deny entry or inspect vessels that have been involved in IUU fishing. Parties to the agreement must share information regionally and globally regarding vessels discovered to be involved in IUU fishing – and flag states must be notified of suspected vessels, adding an additional possibility for enforcement. Even in environments which are already well-regulated, the reporting measures will help to focus enforcement activity, says the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, enabling agents to "prioritize vessel inspections based on available information related to the vessel and catch onboard. Expanded, thorough inspections . . . will become more routine."

For all of the treaty's promise, activists say that enforcement will be a challenge in many of the most affected parts of the world, like West Africa, where local and national governance may be weak – or in areas where the government is seen as complicit in the practice. 

Dr. Lisa Otto, writing for Coventry University's Center for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, expressed skepticism of the PSMA’s ability to drive change. She notes that six of the world's top ten fish-producing countries – China, Peru, India, Japan, Vietnam and Russia – have not ratified the agreement, leaving a large number of ports accessible to the world's largest fishing fleets, without the application of PSMA’s rules. "The FAO has called [PSMA] ‘groundbreaking,' and whilst the organization should surely be hailed for the work that it has done to bring the PSMA into effect and to develop the capacity needed to implement the measures it entails, it surely can’t be considered groundbreaking until it begins to generate critical mass," she wrote. Dr. Otto called for an even stronger treaty: "Evidently, more work needs to be done to generate consensus around the need for an agreement on IUU fishing that could bring practical outcomes in making it difficult for illegal fishers to continue to operate."

Dr. Dana Miller, a research scientist with the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Center, also suggested that the challenge for PSMA would be in ratification and implementation. "[The PSMA] provides the opportunity for port states to have a stronger role in regulating the global fishing and seafood industries and reduces reliance on flag state responsibility. The use of flags of non compliance should also become less of a problem," she said.  "However, it is very important that the agreement is universally ratified and enforced, otherwise there is a high risk that more 'ports of convenience' will appear and illegal fish will find alternate routes through which to access global markets."


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.