First Steps to Brussels Crackdown on Illegal Fishing

The European parliament has voted overwhelmingly to bring in new rules cracking down on illegal fishing, which could help coastal states confront criminal activity in heavily fished African waters.

Thursday’s vote to overhaul Europe’s external fleet legislation could deter commercial operators from encroaching on waters relied upon by local fishing communities.  (This article appeared in the Guardian 2 Feb.)

Said Jama Mohamed knew something was wrong when he saw satellite images of a 28-metre trawler fishing along Somalia’s shores, which are reserved for local fishers.  An inspection of the Greek-owned vessel confirmed the Deputy Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources’ suspicions, when officials found more than 30 tons of fish, including local staples like snapper and goatfish. On October 7th, he decided to lay charges. But by the next morning, Greko 1 was gone.

This is often where the story ends: countries like Somalia lack an off-shore coast guard to chase the high-powered industrial trawlers that fish nearby, slipping in and out of their waters before disappearing with large amounts of fish that are then sold to international markets.

“There are so many vessels in the sea here, it’s full of them. Somalia needs more support to eliminate IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing,” says Mohamed.  “It’s costing us a lot of money and resources – we need enforcement capacity to catch these illegal vessels.”

Somalia had recently joined FISH-i Africa, a regional network of eight Indian Ocean countries that share information about suspicious fishing activities.

On the lookout for the fugitive vessel, Kenyan port authorities alerted their neighbours when Greko 1 pulled into port. Mohamed and his colleagues flew to Mombasa and laid charges of operating without a valid fishing license, fishing within 24 nautical miles of the coast in an area reserved for Somali fishers, and being in possession of forged documents and licenses.

The owner, based in Athens and the head of several companies spread across a number of countries, was fined. A settlement was negotiated and $65,000 was paid to the Somali authorities.

The Greko is one of dozens of European-owned vessels that have been spotted fishing illegally off Africa’s coasts in recent years – in some cases for months at a time.  With vast coastlines unpoliced, even those that are caught and fined can resume fishing.

But if Thursday’s sweeping reforms to Europe’s distant water fleet are implemented, vessels like the Greko, which has sailed under the flags of Greece, Somalia and Belize, could be stopped.

Under the new rules, vessels that have changed flags must show they were not engaged in illegal fishing for the previous two years, and operators that have been sanctioned for serious infringements over the previous 12 months, won’t be authorised to fish abroad.

“If implemented properly, this kind of legislation could be a strong deterrent for illegal fishing,” says Per Erik Bergh, of Stop Illegal Fishing and FISH-i Africa, which provide monitoring, control and surveillance support to Somalia and seven other Indian Ocean countries.  “These are expensive operations, and denying fishing companies the right to fish, even for a year, could put them out of business altogether.”

Among the most controversial measures, is Article 39, which would set up an electronic register identifying the vessel authorised as well as the name and location of the company owner and beneficial owner – a step too far for the fishing industry.

“We want this information to be public, but little by little,” says Daniel Voces, policy advisor at Europêche, the lobbying group. “We’re talking about business confidentiality.  If everyone knows where we fish and who’s getting the money – as a principle we are not opposed, but we need to study how to do it.”

NGOs and environmentalists have applauded moves to improve traceability with a register and IMO (International Maritime Organisation) number that is permanent and unique to each vessel.

“For the first time we will see who benefits from global fishing though a public register,” says MEP Linnéa Engström, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Fisheries. “This is crucial to stop overfishing and to protect marine ecosystems.”

The Parliamentary vote is the first step towards passing legislation. Next month representatives from Parliament, the Commission and European Council will meet in “Trilogues” to agree on a final version.

A document obtained by the Guardian, however, suggests the European Council will resist some of the bill’s central measures.

Under Article 5 a member state may only authorise an operator or vessel that hasn’t been “subject to a sanction for a serious infringement” – a clause that has been deleted in the “Council General Approach,” the unofficial position held by the 28 member states.

It’s one of several points of discord between Council and Parliament, which could take months to reconcile before legislation is ultimately passed.

The Council also opposes a key “claw-back” clause, which would allow the Commission to revoke authorisations from law-breaking operators that EU states fail to penalise.

“We’ve seen examples of Italian and Lithuanian vessels fishing in West Africa, arrested for illegal fishing, then continuing to fish – and no action was taken by Italy or Lithuania,” says Béatrice Gorez, of the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements.  “So even if you have robust legislation, if member states are able to carry on not doing anything, it won’t change. Hopefully this legislation will provide the European Commission with the ability to intervene. We can’t continue saying, ‘The European Union are leaders in terms of sustainability’ whilst allowing some European companies to get away with murder.”

While so-called Sustainable Fishing Partnership Agreements between the EU and coastal states impose strict rules European vessels, hundreds operate outside of SFPAs under private agreements with coastal states, many of which are unable or unwilling to impose strict rules.

The idea of the new bill is to put all European vessels on a “level playing field”, as Engstrom puts it, and subject dodgy operators to stricter sanctions back home.  “We know that we have a lot of illegal fishing going on, that it’s tied to other criminal activities, that it’s linked to money laundering and tax evasion. Resistance to cleaning up all of these things is huge, because industry has good lobbyists.  But this has to stop.”

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