Analysis

EU Fisheries Commissioner Vella Should Lead to Improve Ocean Governance

Has opportunity at international fisheries meeting in Malta

Karmenu Vella, the European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, spent much of October talking with international audiences about the state of our oceans, the importance of sustainable development and the urgent need for effective governance. Now, with his home nation of Malta hosting a major international fisheries meeting, Vella has an opportunity to lead on these very issues.

From Nov. 10 to 17, members of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) will gather in the Mediterranean island nation. ICCAT, a regional fisheries management organization in need of improved fisheries governance, convenes as the recovery of Atlantic bluefin tuna faces real danger from illegal fishing. Every species under the Commission’s jurisdiction would benefit from improved management measures grounded in science.

In early October, Vella welcomed reforms by Ghana and Papua New Guinea to curtail illegal fishing. At the same time, he warned Taiwan and Comoros that they were not doing enough to prevent black market fish from entering Europe. The Commissioner asked those governments to “join the European Union in promoting legal and sustainable fisheries worldwide.”

Then, at the Our Ocean conference in Valparaiso, Chile, Vella called for action to improve international ocean governance. “Despite some progress this year, governance gaps exist when it comes to managing our oceans sustainably,” he said in an Oct. 5 speech. “Actions by individual countries are much needed but not sufficient.”

At a conference in Vigo, Spain, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Code of Conduct, Vella continued to champion the fight to end illegal fishing.

Then, at Dalian Maritime University in China, the Commissioner made the case that nations must work together to address management issues in international waters, highlighting the EU’s approach.  “In recent years, the EU has been pushing more than ever for science-based decision-making, for the precautionary approach, for the ecosystem approach, for a water-tight enforcement and control system, and for better compliance,” he told his audience.

And Vella made clear soon afterward why the EU places such a priority on good ocean governance.  “One in six jobs in the EU depends to some extent on nature and biodiversity,” he wrote in a commentary for the Cyprus Weekly.  

This brings us to this year’s ICCAT meeting, an important international gathering given Malta’s ties to fishing and the critical decisions on the table. The meeting provides an opportunity for Vella to put his messages into practice.

Illegal trade of Atlantic bluefin remains a sizeable problem, one that jeopardizes the species’ recovery. To ensure that this tuna’s populations can rebuild, the governments that belong to ICCAT must agree to full implementation of the electronic bluefin catch documentation system—without loopholes. And the system must be in place by March, before the start of the next big fishing season in the Mediterranean. A ban on at-sea transshipments of tuna in the region also would help keep illegally caught fish from making it to market.

Tuna species such as bigeye, along with shark species such as blue, porbeagle, and thresher, urgently need protection through precautionary, ecosystem-based management. ICCAT should move in that direction with a more modern approach to catch limits and quotas, one that allows decisions to be made before a crisis occurs.

The EU may be hosting ICCAT’s annual meeting, but another 49 governments will take part. Together, they share responsibility for management of fishing for migratory species in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

Pew will be looking to all of them to support important measures for tuna and sharks. After all, as Vella said in his speech at the Our Ocean conference, actions by individual countries are needed, but no one government can do what needs to be done alone.   

Elizabeth Wilson directs Pew’s international ocean policy work.

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