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How do we prevent illegal fishing?

It will take a combination of technology and political will to tackle the problem

By Prospect Team  

A U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment member and a Ghanaian navy sailor inspect a fishing vessel suspected of illegal fishing during the Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership.The partnership is the operational phase of Africa Partnership Station and brings together U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and respective Africa partner maritime forces to actively patrol that partner's territorial waters and economic exclusion zone with the goal of intercepting vessels that may have been involved in illicit activity. (U.S. Navy photo by Kwabena Akuamoah-Boateng/Released)

Introducing a Prospect roundtable held in London last week on the scourge of illegal fishing in the world’s oceans, Mark Bolland, director of the Bertarelli Foundation, said that the discussion was very timely “given the current policy context.” The subject, Bolland noted, will no doubt be on the agenda at the Our Ocean conference that will take place in Chile in October. Working out the technologies and legal frameworks best suited to tackling illegal fishing in marine reserves is, he said, “a challenge that needs to be met.”

To that end, Prospect, in association with the Bertarelli Foundation and the Pew Trust, assembled a group of experts from science, industry, government and law enforcement to explore these issues in detail. (Prospect will also be publishing a 16-page supplement on illegal fishing to be distributed with the September issue of the magazine.)

Chairing the meeting, Jonathan Derbyshire, managing editor of Prospect, invited Heather Koldewey, head of the global conservation programme at the Zoological Society of London, to assess the scale of the challenge identified by Bolland. “Whatever metric you use,” Koldewey said, “the oceans are in very big trouble.” She attributed this to a combination of “local impacts”—pollution, fishing, coastal developments—and the impact of climate change.

Of those local impacts, Koldewey suggested that over-exploitation in general, and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in particular, is the “biggest threat to marine species.” In some regions, one in five fish are illegally caught. The threat of IUU fishing is certainly grave, but, she insisted, “it can be overcome by increased political will, strategic partnerships and better engagement with civil society and the private sector.”

Alex Rogers, professor of conservation biology at the University of Oxford, agreed that the challenge is “enormous”. He noted that a recent report by the World Bank estimated that somewhere in the region of $83bn has been lost through the mismanagement of fisheries and that around 20 per cent of all fish caught globally are being caught by IUU vessels.

Given that scientists have already helped us to assess the scale of the problems posed by IUU fishing, it may be that the biggest challenge is, as Heather Koldewey argued, ensuring that there is sufficient political will to confront them. That was certainly the view of Mark Spalding, chief science adviser to the British Indian Ocean Territory at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. “I don’t see the problem as one of science,” he said. “We know the depressing facts, [but] we’ve got technological approaches that are about to open up entirely new ways of dealing with this problem. [But] there is a huge issue around telling this story. It’s a communications issue.”

Simon Reddy, executive secretary of the Global Oceans Commission, agreed. Governments, he observed, tend to be focused on economic questions. “What happens outside that is not high up their priority list.” The “communications challenge,” he said, echoing Spalding, is to “build awareness that what happens on the high seas is important. We seem to have fallen into this trap where we have a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ] and what happens outside that has no bearing on what happens inside.”

Neil Brown, currently attached to the Gulf Strategy Team in the Cabinet Office, wondered if Reddy was possibly understating the difficulty in promoting the IUU fishing agenda. “I think it’s worse than [Simon suggests]. It presumes governments are interested in what happens in their EEZs. And I think that’s not the case… Although we can see the exquisite logic of everything that’s been set out here, making it relevant is very difficult.”

From which it would appear to follow that the way in which the issue is framed is crucial. Reddy emphasised this point. “Too often, it comes down to a fish story or an environment story.” A more promising way of framing the problem, he suggested, is to present it as a “security issue”. Reddy reminded the meeting that the terrorists responsible for the deadly attack on Mumbai in 2008 had got into the city on unregistered fishing vessels.

This is not just a question of presentation or media management, either. Deon Burger, a project co-ordinator in the Environmental Security Sub-Directorate of Interpol, observed that illegal fishing is rarely carried out in isolation from other forms of illegal activity. “What we find is that the easiest method… is, rather than looking at the illegal fishing itself, [to look] at the surrounding crimes that are taking place—whether it’s fraud or human trafficking.”

Technological advances are making it much easier for international law enforcement agencies to pursue illegal fishing, a point emphasised by Will Pryer, a senior policy official at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. “Emerging technologies are the future,” he said, a view echoed by Werner Gowitzke, an expert on environmental crime at Europol. “New technologies like satellite imaging are fantastic,” Gowtizke said. “IUU fishing is an area where it is of particular importance.”

Tony Long, the director of the Global Campaign to End Illegal Fishing, emphasised the way new technologies enhance “transparency,” as it enables countries to share information on fishing vessels. While Chuck Fox, Programme Director at Oceans Five, mentioned that South Korea is now making its vessel identification data available to NGOs. Fox and Mike Weavers, a fisheries compliance director at Defra, both mentioned the success of the European Union in putting pressure on South Korea, while Neil Brown pointed to instances of international cooperation in the Horn of Africa, which have shown what is possible “when there’s political interest.”

There is a lesson here for the development community, too, Brown suggested. “[It] can’t be churlish about getting into bed with industry. Neither can it be churlish about getting into bed with navies.”

The following people participated in this roundtable: Mark Bolland, director, Bertarelli Foundation; Commodore Neil Brown, Gulf Strategy Team, Cabinet Office; Deon Burger, Coordinator, Environmental Security Sub-Directorate, Interpol; Daniel Cressey, Senior News Reporter, Nature; Jonathan Derbyshire, managing editor, Prospect; J Charles Fox, Programme Director, Oceans 5; Adrian Gahan, Managing Director, Sancroft; Werner Gowitzke, Europol; Dr Heather Koldewey, Head of Global Conservation Programme, Zoological Society of London’ François Leroy, Senior Vice-President, Global Research and Industries, Liquid Robotics; Commander Tony Long, director, Global Campaign to End Illegal Fishing, The Pew Charitable Trusts; Andrew Opie, Director of Food Sustainability, British Retail Consortium; Will Pryer, Lead on Enforcement of UKOT’s MR, Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Simon Reddy, executive secretary, Global Oceans Commission; Professor Alex Rogers, Somerville College, Oxford University; Brad Soule, Senior Fisheries Analyst, Catapult; Dr Mark Spalding, Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Indian Ocean Territory, Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Professor Clive Trueman, Associate Professor of Marine Ecology, University of Southampton; Mike Weavers, Fisheris Compliance Policy Advisor, Defra; Ben Webster, Environment Editor, the Times.

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