Behavior Change
Sweeping Commercial Fishing Bans Could Create Sea Change in Global Seafood Industry

Western seafood lovers may begin to notice a change in the availability of some of their favorite fish varieties as a result of a number of new restrictions placed on commercial fishing in recent weeks, in an effort to preserve the integrity of marine ecosystems and the sustainability of fish stocks.

In late March, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), Oceana, The Pew Charitable Trusts and WWF welcomed a decision by the EU Fisheries Council to place trade restrictions on Belize, Cambodia and Guinea for failing to combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. EU member states must now ban the import of fish from the three countries and ensure that EU fishing vessels do not operate in their waters. The EU IUU Regulation aims to deprive market access for illegal fish by requiring “catch certificates” for imports into the EU, as well as banning the entry of fish from countries and vessels involved in illegal fishing.

EJF executive director Steve Trent said: “Closing the world’s most valuable seafood market to countries that do not cooperate in fighting illegal fishing is a crucial step, and we applaud the EU for taking this decision. Whilst it is not perfect, the EU IUU Regulation is clearly the world’s leading piece of legislation in this field — there are already signs that coastal communities in West Africa are seeing the benefits of the EU’s action towards offending vessels and flag States.”

IUU fishing depletes fish stocks, damages marine ecosystems, puts legitimate fishers at an unfair disadvantage and jeopardizes the livelihoods of some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. The value of IUU fishing is estimated to be between US$10-23 billion, representing between 11.06 and 25.91 million tons of catch, according to the Marine Stewardship Council.

In addition to welcoming the ban, the NGOs are calling for greater transparency in the way the EU evaluates third-world countries’ efforts to fight illegal fishing. They are also calling on the European Commission to close a loophole that allows non-EU vessels fishing in the banned countries’ waters to continue exporting their catches to the EU, and to work with EU member states to strengthen efforts to keep illegally caught fish off the dinner plates of European consumers.

The three countries were initially amongst eight countries identified by the European Commission in November 2012 — Fiji, Panama, Sri Lanka, Togo, Belize, Cambodia and Guinea — for inadequate monitoring of their fishing fleets, neglecting to impose sanctions on illegal fishing operators, and failing to develop robust fisheries laws. In 2013 the Commission announced that all but the latter three had improved. Last month’s Council decision confirms the Commission recommendation that the countries be formally blacklisted or “red-carded” and prevented from trading fish with the EU.

A second round of “yellow cards” was issued by the European Commission in November 2013, with Curaçao, Ghana and South Korea warned that they could also face the same set of trade measures if they do not cooperate in fighting IUU fishing. South Korean vessels have been widely documented fishing illegally in West Africa, causing significant impacts on coastal fishing communities and the marine environment. The NGOs are calling on the EU to continue to show the same resoluteness towards other countries that repeatedly fail to observe the rules.

Meanwhile, that same week the Pacific island-nation of Palau announced its plans to ban all commercial fishing vessels from its waters, creating one of the world’s largest marine reserves, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN). The sanctuary will cover roughly 230,000 square miles, an area of ocean slightly smaller than the size of France.

If Palau is successful, it will mark the first time a nation has completely banned fishing vessels from its entire Exclusive Economic Zone. The move is significant for the country, which is located in the part of the Pacific inhabited by the world’s last healthy stock of tuna — worth an estimated $5.5 billion. Commercial fishing, largely by Japan and Taiwan, currently represents $5 million annually, or 3.3 percent of Palau’s GDP. But Palau argues that its tourist diving industry is far more significant, bringing in $85.3 million a year.

This isn’t the first move by Palau to attempt to protect its marine life from exploitation. In 1992, Palau and seven of its neighbors — Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Tuvalu — called the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) — signed an agreement stating that they’d collaboratively manage their tuna stocks and limit fishing in their waters. FERN likens the PNA to “the Saudi Arabia of sashimi”: their collective stocks account for nearly half of the world’s skipjack tuna — America’s favorite fish — and nearly a third of the world’s total tuna population.

As FERN points out, Palau’s latest move may risk international relationships and foreign aid, which are brokered alongside tuna fishing licenses. The country is slated to receive $215 million from the US in economic assistance and grants through 2024.

Time will tell how well these bans will be upheld and how they will affect the global seafood market. To ensure your seafood choices are sustainable in the meantime, you almost can’t go wrong buying local or from a number of conscientious retailers — or there’s always Long John Silver’s.

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