The nexus between illegal fishing and fisheries subsidies

By Bradley Soule, Chief Fisheries Analyst

If you read the most recent update to FAO’s Status of World Fisheries & Aquaculture (and if you’re reading this, you probably did), you know that the trend lines for world capture fisheries aren’t great. The total amount of capture harvest has been static for decades but the percentage that is overfished continues to grow and amount of underfished fisheries (think of it as spare capacity) continues to drop. While the majority of world fisheries are still sustainability harvested, the trend lines aren’t great. This makes sense in world with millions more people every day and a larger percentage of those people entering the middle class and demanding access to the same tasty protein that the rich world has enjoyed. As we all know from economics, static supply and increasing demand means that prices will rise, and where prices rise incentives rise for people to break the rules or cheat or for governments to set the bar too low and enable legal overfishing.

Boats_small picOceanMind primarily helps governments and businesses address the first issue by providing intelligence reports on possible non-compliance for investigation or 3rd party validation that everything is fine for businesses. We also work with fisheries authorities to develop and implement regulations that enable sustainable fishing based on vessel activity in their waters.

In previous work with the Coast Guard, I had the opportunity to participate in a very small way in the review and development of the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), which took about a decade. That gave a good viewpoint into how complicated these issues can be, but that process doesn’t hold a candle to the ongoing WTO deliberations for subsidies which probably have an even greater likely impact on global fisheries sustainability that the PSMA.

I will readily admit that trade issues are not my area of expertise, but I did my best to look through the current working language as it related to IUU fishing and I want to share a few of the key issues I see with my hopes and recommendations for how it all pans out.

First off, the definition of “IUU fishing” is problem number one. There is a clear desire to not provide subsidies to vessel operators engaged in IUU fishing, but how do you decide who has done it? Illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing has a very specific and technical definition under international agreements which is actually quite broad, but in practice it’s been rounded down to a simplistic view that the only IUU vessel is one that is on the IUU list of a regional fisheries management organization (RFMO), one of the international bodies where countries jointly manage highly migratory or fish stocks that are shared across borders. It’s also important to know that these are NOT managing the majority of the worlds fisheries, which are mostly inside national waters. Violations of the rules inside national waters may lead to sanctions or penalties, but very rarely do they lead to designation of an IUU fishing vessel under an RFMO list. Using just these lists would be the lowest common denominator in deciding whose subsidies should be removed or withheld.

However, if we don’t use the IUU vessel lists, what is the best indicator? We are literally talking about taking money away from people. Personally, I think there should be as few subsidies as possible in fisheries, but in the absence of a complete prohibition, any allegation of IUU fishing should lead to subsidies being placed in escrow or withheld pending investigation by national authorities. This will not be as simple as using the IUU vessel lists, but it captures the full range of IUU fishing activity and can lead to actions that really push people where it matters: in their wallets.

It’s also important to make sure that any penalties are targeted at the people and companies profiting from the activity in question. As we like to say in the compliance world: “boats don’t break the rules, people do”. There is a lot of depersonalization of IUU fishing given the focus on vessels where we speak as if a vessel had a brain and knowingly went into a closed area with prohibited gear or fished beyond the end of an expired license. This is obviously ridiculous but it’s how almost every press release in the world reads for fisheries violations. Any meaningful attempt to sanction fishing subsidies based on IUU activity should therefore target the beneficial owner of the vessel, who may have different types of subsidies in play, including subsidies for fuel and tax reliefs that are also currently open to negotiation.

Finally, all of this would be much simpler if national authorities made public their vessel registries, fishing licenses, and lists of subsidy recipients. OceanMind spends quite a bit of time helping governments and businesses research ownership and flag registry information using our extensive databases as well as developing new relationships and sources to overcome the silos of information that discourage cross-border cooperation on fisheries intelligence and enforcement. The compliance community does not do a good job of reminding everyone that the low-hanging fruit of fisheries compliance is in making sure that registries, licenses, and subsidies are publicly available so that other countries, the public, and even government officials within the same government can see how their tax money and common marine resources are being used. Once the information is more freely available, there is still the task of conducting analysis to dig through the data to find out where the problems might be (the real fun stuff), but that’s a discussion for another time.

Thanks again to ICTSD and the WTO for hosting me for this discussion and I look forward to seeing a strong, transparent, and enforceable agreement text in the near future!

Anyone interested in discussing my perspective is welcome to get in touch via info@oceanmind.global.