Observers say the European Union is poised to hand South Korea a so-called "red card" next month unless Seoul is able to convince the EU fisheries commissioner that it is cracking down on illegal fishing by boats flying its flag.
South Korea, along with Ghana and Curacao, last year was handed a "yellow card" warning. Continuing violations by South Korean-flagged ships, many in waters off the coast of West Africa, could bring further sanctions this year.
Belize, Cambodia and Guinea, in March of this year, were penalized with the first-ever EU red cards for pirate fishing.
The red card means those countries cannot sell their seafood in EU countries nor fish in member countries' waters.
Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation, which tracks illegally caught fish heading to EU markets, praised the new tough regulation for Europe/.
"It's beginning to show its teeth. And that is what is happening with regard to [South] Korea. We are seeing the European Commission saying, 'you haven't done enough," he said. "What you have done doesn't satisfy us. And unless you do more there will be penalties.'"
EU Aims for Public Shaming in Crackdown on Illegal Fishing
Since 2010, the EJF has documented more than 200 cases of South Korean ships allegedly targeting high-value fish species in waters off West Africa. The organization says South Korean pirates routinely fish in protected areas, flee fisheries patrols, refuse to pay fines, cover their identification markings, transship fish illegally at sea and attack local fishermen. It says on some of the vessels, workers as young as 14 are forced to live and work at sea in deplorable conditions for months at a time.
If South Korea is given a red card, it will have repercussions beyond maritime commerce, contends the EJF's Trent.
"The other thing that happens is brand Korea gets some damage. This would be an international rebuke. It doesn't look good for the country," he says. "It's saying that they can't look after their own and their own responsibilities. And I think in some respects that is perhaps even more damaging for the country than the relatively modest embargo on trade exports."
Illegal Foreign Catches Still Enter US Seafood Market
A new study, published in the journal Marine Policy, on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IIU) fishing looks at seafood entering the United States. It finds 40 percent of the tuna from Thailand is illegal or unreported. That was also the case with 70 percent of salmon imports and 45 percent of pollock, both from China.
The lead author of the report, Pramod Ganapathiraju, a researcher at the Fisheries Center at the University of British Columbia, said the U.S. and other major seafood importing markets, such as the European Union, China, Japan and South Korea, see most of the product coming in through containers and cargo ships.
"The volumes are quite high. But, at the same time, the amount of manpower that is needed to make sure that illegal catches don't enter these markets is quite low in most of these importing countries," explained Ganapathiraju. "So they need to increase the manpower to improve monitoring, control and surveillance at their ports."
A 2009 government report found that only about two percent of seafood imports in the United States were being inspected at the ports. There is no public data for most other major import markets.
The U.S. Senate last month gave its approval to the 2009 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's Port State Measures agreement. It is designed to keep foreign vessels suspected of illegal fishing out of the ports of nations which have signed the pact. Ten coastal countries and the EU have already ratified it but similar approval from 14 others is still needed for the treaty to take effect.
The agreement as an affordable way to stop illegal fish from entering the global market, Long argues.
"The fisherman have to bring it to port. Therefore to focus on that rather than the expensive resources that you need to patrol out at sea or draw in space [satellite] surveillance, the ports are the obvious place," said Anthony Long, who runs the Ending Illegal Fishing Project for the Pew Charitable Trust. "It's definitely cost effective. So the developing countries will get a lot of benefit from the Port States Measures agreement."
Campaign Against Illegal Catches Finds Industry Allies
Long explains there are problems all along the seafood supply chain.
"I was surprised to find just how easy it is to manipulate the system," he said. "The U.S., the European Union, Japan, all big markets can start to change the shape of fishing by demanding clearer understanding of the chain of supply -- that supply from the moment the fish is caught to the moment it arrives on your plate."
Long, a retired British Royal Navy commander, noted that some seafood suppliers are becoming conscientious.
"Different suppliers are now getting very interested in the supply chain and providing that evidence to make their product a prime product that isn't going to be linked to bonded labor or tax evasion or over-fishing or any other illegal entity that tends to be linked to these illegal fishermen," said Long. "We're working with suppliers in order to make sure that we can build a system that they can use and present to their customers in a way the customers will understand."
American Richard Conniff, the author of Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth and other books related to animals, said more pressure needs to be applied on the distributors.
"The distributors are the bottleneck," said Conniff. "That's where most of the (sea)food comes into this country. And they are the ones who can stop it by insisting that all merchandise be traceable and that it all be legal."
Ganapathiraju at UBC said that during his research, they received a surprising amount of cooperation from distributors because they are not able obtain the same amount of fish year to year.
"The catches are being depleted. But the demand is going up in these export destinations. And they're not able to cope with the demand because there is so much over-fishing happening, as well as illegal fishing from other destinations," said Ganapathiraju. "That's the reason they're so open to discuss that."
Chinese Regulators Expected to Determine Global Approach
Activists, such as the EJF's Steve Trent, predict China -- with a huge and growing appetite for seafood -- will eventually be the most critical player when it comes to combating IUU fishing.
"The way the Chinese government and authorities act towards fisheries on a global platform in the future will determine much of everyone's policy," said Trent.
Conniff said China and other nations have little choice but to make changes or face dire ecological consequences.
"There's an incentive for China and for all these other countries to change and to change fast because at this point 85 percent of all fisheries are at or beyond their biological limits," he said.
Additional regulatory changes are being implemented to try to stem the tide.
Fishing vessels larger than 100 tons will have to acquire a unique identification number that will remain the same even if the boat changes names or flags.
There are also plans for a global satellite vessel monitoring system. It would be able to track vessels which switch off existing beacons identifying themselves and their positions when fishing in illegal waters or handing off their illicit catches.