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Reeling in Illicit Fishing

Lankan fishermen stand on a fishing vessel as it leaves a fishery harbor in Negombo, Negombo, outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct.15, 2014. In its fight against illegal fishing activities worldwide, the European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Maria Damanaki, on Tuesday announced a ban of imports of fisheries products from Sri Lanka to tackle the commercial benefits stemming from illegal fishing.(AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

It’s estimated that illicit fishing accounts for up 26 million tons of seafood a year and costs the global economy as much as 26 billion dollars annually. An international agreement to help curb the problem is gaining support, but still needs more backers before it can take effect.

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Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing – or IUU – not only causes economic damage, but is a threat to food security and biodiversity.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says IUU encompasses fishing without authorization, harvesting protected species, using outlawed fishing gear and violating quota limits. It accounts for over 15 percent of the global seafood take.

Dr. Matthew Camilleri, of the FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Economics Division in Rome, said the problem ranges from big fishing vessels on the high seas to small-scale coastal operations.

“Illegal fishing could be that vessels are fishing in areas where fishing is prohibited because there are fragile ecosystems, which can be affected by fishing activities – or fishing is taking place using fishing gear which is prohibited or the dimensions of the gear are not in line with the regulations that have been set. So, hook sizes may be too small or mesh sizes may be too small, for example.”

He said unreported and under-reported fishing are also widespread.

“Fishing vessels just fail to report on their catches through log books, for example or through electronic systems that are in place. Or they are not reporting on their actual location. So, there are many kinds of infringements that could be associated with illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.”

Camilleri said the illicit practices endanger fish stocks.

“When we say endangered, not in the sense of endangered as being on the verge of extinction, but endangered in the sense that there are stocks which could be over fished. This means that there’s going to be fewer and fewer fish available to be caught by the good fishers and, therefore, less availability for future generations,” he said.

Whether fish are caught legally or illegally, they have to be brought to some port to be unloaded and sold. And a port is a good place for inspection to take place.

In 2009, FAO member countries adopted the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing.

Camilleri said, “The agreement lays down a minimum set of procedures that every port state must follow when accepting foreign fishing vessels coming into their port. There’s a checklist that every state must follow when a foreign fishing vessel requests entry into port, first and foremost. It is like when an individual is traveling to another country. In some cases you request a visa.”

The agreement outlines what types of inspections would be conducted to ensure the catch is legal.

“The agreement goes further in saying that every port state, that is, every country that is accepting foreign vessels into their countries must designate their ports. They must specify in which ports foreign vessels are allowed in. And in those ports there should be the procedures – at least the minimum procedures – defined by the agreement, which need to be implemented,” said Camilleri.

Efforts outside of ports can include satellite monitoring of fishing vessel movements, as well as sea patrols in fishing zones.

To take effect, the agreement needs to be approved by 25 countries. Twelve already have done so, including the European Union, which actually counts as a single country. Two more are expected to join soon. In the United States, the process to join the agreement is reported moving forward.