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U.S., EU Sign Pact to Combat Fishing “Piracy” on High Seas

Amanda Wilson

WASHINGTON, Sep 7 2011 (IPS) - Fisheries representatives from two of the world’s four largest fish consumer markets, Europe and the U.S., signed an agreement here Wednesday pledging to combat illegal fishing on the high seas.

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Jane Lubchenco and European Union Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki signed the agreement, which they said represented a shared commitment to strengthen monitoring of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing with an aim to protect fishing livelihoods and fish stocks for future generations.

International oceans and environmental activists praised the multilateral pledge as a major step forward in the struggle to protect the ocean’s fish from practices they say amount to aggressive, destructive, and unquantifiable pillaging.

The amount of IUU fishing, also called “pirate fishing” when it flouts quotas set by 20 worldwide regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) to manage fish populations, is estimated at anywhere between 20 to 40 percent of all catches worldwide with a market value of 23 billion dollars.

Pointing to the risks of dwindling fish stocks and aggressive overfishing worldwide, U.S. and EU officials said their common vision entailed better fishing vessel monitoring, enforcement, and information-sharing, as well as a possible global seafood catch certification scheme that would include electronic remote verifying systems in which fishing vessels, while at sea, could log their catches into a central database.

Officials said such a global certification scheme, similar to one Damanaki said the EU implemented in 2010, would allow control of the fish supply chain “from the net to the table”. Damanaki said it would empower consumer countries to turn away pirate fishing vessels at port and to identify and reject illegally-caught fish.

U.S. and EU officials said the move would also improve science-based fisheries management by giving scientists better information about the status of fish populations.

Such an ambitious measure, the fisheries officials argued, could be managed by an international governing body such as the United Nations and would give participating consumer regions more power to crack down on the massive global economy in unregulated and unreported fish catches and sales, thus protecting the world’s fish populations.

Bigeye and bluefin tuna are both regulated under various treaty management organisations, but in part due to massive illegal fishing and a high market demand for tuna, their populations have seen a dramatic decline in recent years.

The EU and U.S. have so far taken up efforts which Damanaki said were “different paths to the same end goal.” The EU commissioner said she supported efforts to cut EU funding to large, destructive fishing vessels and re-channel that money into monitoring and tracking technology, incentives to fish less, and grants for small, aquaculture projects in landlocked countries.

U.S. fisheries officials said they hoped to achieve congressional support for Senate Bill 52, the International Fisheries Stewardship and Enforcement Act, which they said would give NOAA greater authority to combat illegal fishing by international fleets.

The U.S. has also signed but not ratified a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) measure through which signatory countries take steps to keep IUU vessels out of their ports. Ratification of the measure will require congressional approval.

Activists see move as sign of hope

Lee Crockett, director of federal fishery policy at the Pew Environment Group, told IPS the U.S.-EU effort was connected to a broader push toward better monitoring and tracking initiatives in fish management organisations, such as a catch documentation scheme (CDS) for bluefin tuna implemented by the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).

But RFMOs set quotas for fishing based on data from documentation schemes – with electronic, real-time documentation being the most advanced – so any fishing activity that takes place outside of those frameworks impedes scientists’ ability to count fish and set quotas.

“Not only is IUU fishing an economic loss to all the countries that depend on fisheries resources, it does not enter into any data stream,” Phil Kline, senior oceans campaigner with Greenpeace, told IPS. “It deprives the managers and the scientists from the actual data of what is being taken out of the ocean so it actually feeds into the cycle of overfishing.”

Kline, who worked for decades as a commercial fisherman, said he supported any effort between the EU and U.S. to combat illegal fishing, even though myriad RFMOs – for different species, regions and fish and depending on whether they swim on the top of the ocean or the bottom – had a poor track record of success.

“None of them so far have successful management history. They have allowed depletion under their management regimes,” Kline told IPS.

Gerry Leape, senior officer for international policy at the Pew Environment Group, told IPS he believed a global electronic tracking and monitoring initiative, managed through a central database, could help identify those fishing vessels “playing by the rules” and help scientists set better catch limits.

“It will strengthen these international fishing bodies and the scientists who are trying to set catch limits won’t have this unknown number [of illegally caught fish] that is in addition to that limit they are setting,” Leape said.

He said that although the U.S. and EU were in a position of strategic power in comparison to pirates because of their market positions, there had so far not been enough political will to implement such broad measures.

Leape told IPS the collaboration between U.S. and EU fisheries officials could increase the chances of success for the fight against IUU fishing. He said, “We need action urgently if we want fish around for future generations.”

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