Ten years ago, with ocean ecosystems and coastal communities feeling the impacts of illegal fishing, the European Union stepped up by adopting the first regulation to address this destructive crime. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing accounts for up to US $23.5 billion worth of seafood per year globally, or up to 1 in every 5 fish sold at market. It depletes fish populations, threatens the resilience of our ocean, skews scientific stock assessments, and steals from communities that rely on healthy fish populations.
Market States, especially those that import the greatest quantities of seafood, play a crucial role in addressing IUU fishing. The EU is the world’s largest trader of fishery products in value terms and therefore should work to ensure the sustainability of the global fish populations and to fight illegal fishing.
The EU’s 2008 IUU fishing regulation, arguably the most ambitious law of its kind globally, aims to leverage the union’s market power to reform world fisheries. The regulation requires countries that export fish to the EU to fight IUU fishing by following international standards. Under the EU’s pioneering “carding” provisions, countries that fail to do so receive an official warning—a yellow card—and those that don’t sufficiently address the identified shortcomings are banned from exporting seafood products to the EU and receive a red card. Those governments can regain the right to export—a green card—by making improvements. The cards are issued by the European Commission.
Since 2014, The Pew Charitable Trusts has worked alongside partners, including the Environmental Justice Foundation, Oceana, and WWF, to support the harmonized and effective implementation of this legislation.
Impact of the EU IUU regulation
Since January 2010, 25 countries have been yellow-carded, with six receiving a red card. To restore their good standing, carded countries must enter into dialogue with the European Commission to learn what changes they need to make. The system has proved particularly effective at driving fisheries reforms globally, in many cases bringing life-changing improvements to local communities. In Ghana, for example, a drop in large-scale IUU fishing has helped revitalize the artisanal in-shore fishing industry, and fishermen there say their catch has risen to levels not seen in 25 years.
On another encouraging note, the Commission issued a green card to Tuvalu in late July after significant improvements to address issues in its fishery systems were made. This highlights the success of the IUU regulation in achieving reforms, including strengthening governments’ compliance with their international obligations as flag States; countries that license vessels to fish are legally responsible for their actions. Pew welcomes these tangible improvements and congratulates all parties involved.
The road ahead
The IUU regulation has established the EU as a world leader in fighting illegal fishing and in inspiring other major market States to follow international fishing standards. But there is room for improvement. For example, mandating the use of electronic catch certificates and unique vessel identifiers by all fleets that sell seafood into the EU market has great potential.
Increased transparency throughout the carding process—from the EU’s engagement with governments (carded or otherwise) to providing the rationale for decisions and greater stakeholder involvement—is equally important. In particular, better industry engagement from fishers to retailers and suppliers could speed up reforms and make supply chains more sustainable. Furthermore, improved implementation by both EU and non-EU countries, including in import controls, and transparency on member States’ performance, is essential to achieving a level playing field and demonstrating that these standards are applied consistently, effectively, and uniformly.
Karmenu Vella, European commissioner for the environment, maritime affairs, and fisheries, said, “In the 10 years since the EU adopted its ground-breaking regulation to fight IUU fishing, we’ve helped dozens of countries from outside the EU achieve fundamental changes to their fisheries policies. This has built a new culture of compliance across fisheries worldwide.” Vella said he was grateful for support from non-governmental organizations and added, “Illegal fishing cannot be fought in isolation. The EU and its member States will continue to spearhead the global effort to curb it.”
To maintain its commendable commitment to lead the fight against IUU fishing, the EU needs a strong political will coupled with greater ambition and persistent and focused action. Pew and its partners stand ready to contribute to this effort to protect a resource that is critical to the future of the ocean, the planet, and humankind.
Julie Janovsky is a senior manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ending illegal fishing project.