Important milestone in the fight against illegal fishing

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By Brad Soule, Senior Fisheries Analyst, Satellite Applications Catapult

On 5 June 2016, the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) – an international treaty intended to help stop illegal fishing – came into effect after being ratified by the EU and 29 governments. In this article, Brad Soule considers how the agreement will address illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, one of the greatest challenges our oceans face today.

According to estimates, the cost of IUU fishing worldwide is $10-$23.5 billion annually, representing between 11 and 26 million tonnes of catch. IUU fishing not only affects those who rely on wild-caught fish for food but has many other serious consequences such as threatening sustainable fisheries employment and leads to serious crimes including forced labour. The scale of the challenge is now a major concern of governments around the world as well as amongst seafood retailers who want better assurances that their products are sourced sustainably and ethically.

The introduction and ratification of the PSMA is a major milestone in overcoming the problem as for the first time, countries within the agreement will have access to better information to verify the compliance of vessels accessing their facilities and ports. To give some examples, foreign-flagged ships will need to request permission to enter ports ahead of time, and provide local authorities with information including details of the fish they have on board. Countries will be obliged to share information regionally and globally regarding any vessels discovered to be involved in IUU fishing. With the advent of the PSMA, governments will need to process and understand significant new volumes of information to understand the activities of all fishing vessels visiting their ports, even those that did not fish in their waters. This is the opportunity as well as the challenge of the PSMA: what happens next to ensure governments are supported in governing fishing activities in their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) as well as checking the compliance of vessels that may have fished on the other side of the world?

One of the most important tools to help governments verify compliance is technology. Much importance has been attached to vessel tracking data such as Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) which is used for vessel safety and general maritime domain awareness and Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), closed systems traditionally used by governments for tracking domestic and distant water fishing fleets. And rightly so. Satellite and terrestrial tracking systems along with other specialist fisheries databases are vital in supporting governments to help monitor fishing activities and vast areas of water.

But firstly, for this to work, collaboration at every level is needed to support governments with their enforcement activities. Commercial fisheries players have a responsibility to share knowledge and intelligence on fisheries activities, playing their part in supporting government efforts to verify compliance with legal regimes half a world away. NGOs, too, have a supporting role, offering ideas on and solutions to IUU fishing, particularly to countries that are resource poor. Civil society has a role to play in exerting pressure on policy makers to focus their efforts on tackling illegal fishing in their waters.

Secondly, governments need both technology and insight – an approach that Eyes on the Seas has uniquely pioneered so that governments benefit from the powerful combination of technology with human analysis of vessel behaviour and knowledge of fisheries regulations from around the world. Fighting IUU fishing is dependent on governments’ ability to correctly interpret big data from tracking technologies along with an understanding of the ever changing fisheries regimes of dozens of different countries across the planet. The increased volume of data coming to Governments from the PSMA coming into effect makes the ability to understand and take enforcement action on suspicious activity even more crucial.

Thirdly, governments need the capacity to carry out their enforcement activities via trained and available people to resource their monitoring and enforcement activities. They need to be able to evaluate vessels coming in and out of ports and ask the right questions with the paperwork from vessel masters being correctly validated. Without the knowledge and the people to carry out and support such monitoring activities, the opportunity presented by the PSMA coming into effect will not be realised.

If these next steps fall into place, the benefits to countries and to our oceans are considerable. Retailers, conscious of the need to achieve transparency in their seafood supply chains from source to supermarket, will be attracted to source their fish and seafood from their waters. New supply chains will lead to a strengthened local fishing economy and sustainable fishing employment. Governments will have diminished a contributing factor to the disruption of our oceans’ marine life and eco systems.

So the stakes are high. The PSMA coming into effect is a welcomed milestone, but just one in a number of important steps that need to be taken to truly combat illegal fishing.