To End Illegal Fishing, Authorities Must Improve Transparency and Cooperation

FAO meeting could drive action on vessel identification, port controls, data sharing, and collaboration

To End Illegal Fishing, Authorities Must Improve Transparency and Cooperation
Fishermen outside of Accra, Ghana
Frank Day Getty Images

Although the 2020 deadline has passed to end illegal fishing, which United Nations (UN) member governments agreed to in 2015 under Sustainable Development Goal 14, countries are making progress to stem this illicit activity. They have a chance to reiterate their commitment to that goal when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Committee on Fisheries (COFI) meets online 1-5 February.

A main thrust of the meeting—which will include FAO members, regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), nongovernmental organizations, and industry—is how to end illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Participants could take a big step towards that goal by committing to improve information sharing and transparency around suspected IUU activity. This in turn would help governments implement the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA)—a key treaty in the fight against IUU fishing—and better manage their fleets. It also would improve cooperation among agencies, including those dealing with safety and labour issues on fishing vessels, that are key in this mission.

Strengthen transparency between parties to the Port State Measures Agreement

The PSMA, which entered into force in 2016, requires parties to place tighter controls on foreign-flagged vessels seeking to enter and use their ports, and recognizes that transparency between port and flag State authorities is essential. Without up-to-date information on vessels, their compliance history, and the outcome of port controls (denied entries and inspection results), parties to the PSMA cannot carry out sufficient risk assessments or act promptly against suspected illegal operators. Unfortunately, governments do not yet share such information, despite prior commitments to do so. COFI offers an opportunity to jumpstart better communication.

For example, the Global Information Exchange System (GIES), which was requested under the PSMA and is being developed by the FAO, would give authorities access to comprehensive, frequently updated information on the outcomes of port controls. The GIES is expected to be available to parties to the PSMA later this year. COFI members should reiterate the urgency of finalizing development of this tool and encourage governments to use a new app to share information on ports and points of contact to further improve transparency and cooperation.

At the same time, parties to the PSMA should complete self-assessments—comprehensively and objectively—on their implementation of the treaty, as they had agreed to do. This will help parties identify adjustments they need to make in their port controls and information-sharing practices. FAO has distributed a self-assessment questionnaire to ease this process.

Improve information sharing on fishing vessels

According to COFI, authorities lack up-to-date information on the identification, history, authorization, and ownership of vessels operating internationally—information that is vital to managing fisheries and to curbing IUU fishing, for example through the PSMA.

To improve collection of such data, COFI members should commit to several steps. First, they should request that all eligible vessels have International Maritime Organization (IMO) numbers—permanent identifiers that stay with a boat throughout its lifetime—and that these should be clearly visible on the hull. Many IUU fishers change their ships’ names or radio call signals to evade authorities and dodge accountability.

Fisheries managers and authorities should also focus on learning the identity of the people or companies who ultimately benefit from each boat’s fishing. Illegal fishers often conceal these beneficial owners behind layers of shell companies and hard-to-locate “officers,” which makes prosecuting suspected IUU fishing extremely difficult. 

Ownership data can already be uploaded and shared through the FAO Global Record, but this platform is not utilized nearly enough. COFI members should recommit to its use, which would reinforce a shared responsibility of ending illegal fishing.  

Advance international and inter-agency cooperation

Participants at the COFI meeting should also work toward better coordination with other maritime policy bodies, such as the International Labour Organization and IMO, and can do so especially through the Joint Working Group on IUU Fishing. Many other maritime issues, including working conditions and crew safety at sea, are linked with IUU activity, and greater cooperation and transparency across national and regional authorities could help improve fisheries management and stem illegal fishing while improving sharing of key information, such as accident and fatality reporting.

RFMOs and State authorities also have important roles to play in improving cooperation across fisheries. RFMOs already maintain vessel records and IUU vessel lists, set IMO number requirements, and set policies on vessel tracking and port State measures, so it is critical that they communicate closely among themselves and with other international organizations. Broader and more effective information sharing among all of these bodies, along with nongovernmental organizations and national governments, will improve fisheries management and enforcement.

Although governments have taken steps towards meeting their responsibilities, they must continue to ensure that all COFI members—particularly developing nations—have the resources and capacity they need to improve transparency and reduce vulnerabilities to illegal fishing.

Despite the passing of the 2020 deadline to end IUU fishing, UN members remain committed to meeting Sustainable Development Goal 14, and they have a clear path to achieving it. With so many stakeholders around the table, the February COFI meeting offers a prime opportunity to get a lot closer to meeting that goal, and fulfilling the promise of a sustainable future for the world’s fisheries.

Dawn Borg Costanzi works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project. 

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