Law of the Sea Tribunal Expands Liability for Illegal Fishing

Decision holds that governments must ensure their vessels do not fish outside the law

When vessels have been caught fishing illegally in waters far from where they are registered, the captains have faced prosecution. But there have been few legal repercussions for the countries of registration.

A new opinion should change that. On April 2, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea handed down a decision that says the countries of registration, or flag States, must take “necessary steps” to ensure that their vessels do not engage in illegal, unreported, or unregulated (IUU) fishing in foreign waters.

The opinion, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, followed a request from the West African Subregional Fisheries Commission (SRFC), which is made up of Cape Verde, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal, and Sierra Leone—countries in a region often targeted by illegal fishermen.

Although flag States have borne legal responsibility in the past, international fisheries experts praised the opinion as a significant step in the global fight against illegal fishing because it declared unequivocally that nations must take affirmative action to halt the rogue fishermen.

“Flag States must share accountability for actions carried out with their vessels, wherever those boats are fishing in the world,” said Tony Long, who leads Pew’s work to end illegal fishing. “It is encouraging to see this respected tribunal reaffirm that truth. IUU fishing is a major factor fuelling the degradation of our oceans and disproportionately hurts people in resource-poor countries who rely on sustainable fisheries for food and income.”

The tribunal held that an international body, such as the European Union, that negotiates fishing access rights for its member States can be held liable for failing to take steps to prevent illegal fishing by any of its Members. That means that the EU could face legal action if just one vessel flagged to an EU country is found to have engaged in IUU fishing outside its waters.

The tribunal also clarified that flag States are obligated to cooperate with coastal States, such as the SRFC countries, to investigate IUU fishing.

Illegal and unreported fishing accounts for 1 in 5 wild-caught marine fish, or up to $23.5 billion worth of seafood every year. West Africa is perhaps the hardest-hit region in the world, with experts estimating that up to 37 percent of its fish are taken outside the law.

The tribunal’s opinion could be used to enforce a number of measures designed to ensure sustainable fisheries, including bans on certain fishing gear and unacceptable levels of bycatch.

Coastal states also must cooperate in protecting shared fish stocks, which will improve the sustainability of the region’s fisheries, the tribunal said.

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