The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) last month held the 33rd session of its Committee on Fisheries (COFI), a biennial meeting at which the status of the world’s fisheries and aquaculture are reviewed. An issue that received more attention from fisheries experts and ministers than ever before: How catch is transferred between vessels.
Every year, hundreds of refrigerated cargo vessels take fresh catch from thousands of fishing vessels and haul it to shore for processing. This transshipment is an essential part of the global commercial fishing industry, but it often takes place outside the view and reach of authorities, creating opportunities for illicit activity and misreporting of catch. Poorly regulated transshipment has led to the laundering of millions of dollars in illegally caught fish and can also be a vehicle for other transnational crimes. With so many unknowns, transshipment is one of the last frontiers for ensuring a legal, verifiable, and transparent seafood supply chain.
But modernizing transshipment management doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it can be distilled into an easy message: a 3-2-1 countdown to reform. Below are three key truths about transshipment, two actions that should be carried out, and one takeaway.
The first truth is that the controls for transshipment, especially on the high seas, are inadequate. With the current patchwork of regulations in place, there is no guarantee that all transfers are being reported and observed. These gaps in oversight can lead to illicit activities, such as the misreporting or non-reporting of catch.
Second, technology can help enforce rules. Effective monitoring of transshipment operations is as essential to protecting the “good” players who are abiding by the rules as it is for catching criminals. Use of vessel monitoring systems should be required and implementation of electronic reporting and monitoring systems expanded without delay.
Third, sharing data is key for detecting non-compliance. Even with the right technologies in place, no single management authority has access to all the information needed to paint a complete picture of transshipment within a region over time or to provide the oversight needed to determine if all events are legal and verifiable. Successful reform will close these data loopholes and facilitate the flow of information to all relevant authorities, which can take legal action if warranted.
With a clearer picture of the gaps in transshipment monitoring, the next step to reform is taking action.
First, COFI members should actively support and assist the FAO as it begins a process to create a global set of best practice guidelines for managing transshipment.
Second, once countries have agreed to these guidelines for reporting, monitoring, and information sharing, they must work together to implement them through their own regulations and regional management organizations.
Lastly, one takeaway applies not just to transshipments but to all fisheries management: Transparency of information breeds self-correcting behavior. When illegal actors are caught, others have more of an incentive to follow the law. The message is clear, and it’s time to start taking action: Establishing transparent transshipment rules, processes, and procedures is needed to ensure a strong, legal, and verifiable seafood supply chain.
Mark Young supports The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work to end illegal fishing and leads campaign efforts related to enforcement, compliance, and technology.