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No Safe Harbor for Illegal Fishing

The Rome agreement will give the EU nations a chance to check their illegal and unregulated fishing trade.

By Nayan Chanda | YaleGlobal Online | September 15, 2009

CREDIT: Nguyen Thanh Long (CC).

Mention the words "global governance" and you can expect yawns. But for all the scorn and neglect it garners, collective management remains the only effective means of running an interconnected and chaotic world.

Earlier this month in Rome, largely unnoticed by the mainstream media, an important step in global governance was taken. Ninety-one countries (including the EU, China and India) reached an agreement to halt illegal fishing by denying such unlawful catch the possibility of being landed in ports. If enforced, the agreement to stop illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing could be a significant tool to prevent the robbing of poorer nations, dangerous erosion of the world's fish stock and possibly ensuring the livelihood of some 400 million people around the world.

When the treaty is ratified by the end of the year, signatory countries will designate ports where vessels can enter for landing their catch or refueling. They will be able to do so after making an advance application to enter the port and allowing inspection. Inspectors can determine where the catch was from and whether it was within the legal bounds. If it is determined that the catch was illegal, the vessel will be turned away. Faced with the costs of barred access to world markets, owners of such unlawful hauls may finally be dissuaded to abandon their operations. The success of the treaty will not only depend on the honest implementation of the law, but cooperation among countries so that ships denied entry in one port do not simply seek haven in a neighboring country's ports.

While marine products provide a significant proportion of the protein intake to 26 of the world's poorest nations, the waters in which their citizens can get their catch are open to the modern fishing fleets of rich and developing nations. The 1992 Law of the Seas' demarcation of the 200 miles exclusive economic zone has no value to poor nations who do not have the means to patrol their exclusive economic zone. There have been occasional and well-publicized incidents, but the high cost of patrol has basically left the modern day pirates free to roam. The more sophisticated fishing trawlers and refrigeration ships of wealthier countries, often flying third country flags to disguise their identities, operate with impunity, stealing the fish that could have fed coastal countries or at least provided them exportable produce.

A recent Canadian study estimates that the total value of current IUU catch worldwide is between 11 and 26 million tonnes, and valued at between $10 billion and $23 billion annually. The European Union alone is assessed to import half a million tons of fish worth €1.1 billion. It is estimated that illegal fishing by EU vessels has taken out of Somalia more than five times the value of its aid to the country every year.

The impact of such robberies on the high sea has been evident in Somalia, where piracy of one kind begat another. In the chaos that engulfed Somalia since the collapse of Siyad Barré regime in 1991, unlicensed foreign fishing vessels moved in large numbers into the country's fish-rich waters. In 2005, a UN agency estimated that 700 foreign fishing vessels were operating in Somali waters, many employing illegal and destructive fishing methods. A recent Australian study reported that vessels from France, Spain, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Egypt, Kenya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Belize and Honduras have exploited Somalia's fish stocks with virtual impunity.

Many Somali fishermen, unable to make a living by fishing, have identified a more violent—and more lucrative—business in hijacking cargo ships and demanding ransoms for kidnapped crew-members. It is no small irony that the very nations who protected their pirate fishing vessels have now become vociferous defenders of the freedom of the sea and dispatched their warships to the Horn of Africa.

While vessels from EU countries—the largest consumers of fish—have been the main perpetrators of illegal and unregulated fishing, South Korean and Taiwanese ships too have been involved. They and China, another major fish consumer, have been criticized for turning a blind eye to illegally caught fish that have been landed in their ports.

The recent agreement in Rome offers all the possibility to act as responsible nations. The hypocritical governments in Europe, in particular, will have an opportunity to put their legally imported fish where their mouths are.

This article originally appeared in Nayan Chanda's Bound Together column for Businessworld and is republished with the author's kind permission.

Read More: Agriculture, Business, Culture, Development, Diplomacy, Economy, Environment, Globalization, Governance, Jobs, Poverty, Trade, Africa, Europe, Global

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