This article is the first in a series about regional cooperation and fisheries.
Overfishing and illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing activity are dangerous for fish stocks, fishers, and the long-term health of the seafood industry. In response, international cooperation through global institutions and regional blocs offers a focused approach to ensuring sustainable management of valuable fish stocks, regardless of whether—or how much—a country participates in the regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) that coordinate and oversee shared fisheries.
This interview with three experts from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project—Nikolas Evangelides and Tahiana Fajardo Vargas, who focus on work to end illegal fishing, and Glen Holmes, who leads engagement with key tuna-focused RFMOs—has been edited for clarity and length.
What’s the importance of regional coordination in combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing?
Fajardo: Regional coordination is an essential tool. National action is very important, but regional efforts reduce opportunities for unscrupulous actors to skirt borders and feed IUU catch into the supply chain. Regional coordination is particularly beneficial when resources are limited, because cooperation and information sharing enable better, more cost-effective actions to ensure legal and sustainable fishing activities.
Evangelides: IUU fishing can’t be tackled in isolation. It’s a complex problem that requires specific expertise across an array of topics, from international law and global decision-making tools to more technical issues such as supply chain operations, vessel tracking technologies, and fishing vessel specifications. No one person—no one country—can know everything about all aspects of fisheries policy. Regional coordination brings together individuals and countries that have expertise on some, but not all, of these factors, and creates alliances of like-minded partners.
What challenges are involved in regional coordination?
Holmes: Countries often compete for the same piece of the market—so when they’re agreeing to cooperate, they need to trust that any action they take won’t disadvantage them. They also may have differing interests, whether it be in a target fish or the fishing gear they use. In these cases, it’s critically important that those leading the efforts to cooperate promote the benefits that everyone can get through smart policy.
But the biggest challenge for regional coordination activities, at least in the ocean regions where I work, is capacity. Many coastal nations have minimal resources, making it difficult to take on additional regional activities.
How do you solve for this capacity problem?
Holmes: The way around it is to engage in improving understanding of the issues in these coastal States, then advancing their technological capacity. This needs to be done side by side with identifying funding opportunities for nations, regional groups, and others to help set up long-term success for fisheries managements, monitoring, and combating illegal activities.
Are there other challenges in promoting regional coordination?
Fajardo: Getting relevant stakeholders in a region to agree on the best way forward can be challenging, especially when it comes to identifying priorities. This misalignment may be at both national and regional levels, and sometimes even both.
What’s the best way to face that challenge?
Fajardo: If they know their government is going to join a regional group, domestic stakeholders in any given country are more likely to agree on how they want to help fight illegal fishing at home. Then, at the regional level, countries can find their commonalities and strategize on how to move forward with larger efforts to fight IUU.
On the flip side, what’s the biggest advantage to working with broad coalitions of countries?
Fajardo: Countries are strong individually, but even stronger together. I’m always impressed by the power of regions and coalitions when they work and present positions as blocs. A good example of regional coordination in Latin America is the Organization of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Sector of the Central American Isthmus, better known as OSPESCA, which has been coordinating fisheries and aquaculture work in the region since the 1990s, with a particular focus on fighting illegal fishing. Most recently the organization has successfully worked with the Central American Commission of Maritime Transport on joint protocols for communication, information exchange, and inspection of vessels to strengthen the regional fight against IUU.
Holmes: The best part—but often also the most frustrating aspect, as well—is getting an understanding of all the different interests and capabilities at play around a particular issue, such as fishing. It’s also great to see coordination develop over time. In the end, it’s very satisfying to find a pathway to better management of a natural resource.
Can you give us an example?
Holmes: The G16, an informal group of like-minded coastal states in the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) with a common objective of sustainable use of tunas and similar species. The G16 is an informal grouping whose members have begun to coordinate in recent years and are seeing results: In IOTC allocation discussions, for example, their unified position on catch allocation strengthens their overall position in the organization.
Are there other regional coordination success stories that could be models?
Evangelides: The creation and work of Fish-i Africa, made up of eight East African coastal countries along the western Indian Ocean, has been quite successful. The initiative shows that when regional cooperation is coupled with dedicated data analysis and technical expertise, it can help prevent illegal catch getting to market. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the European Union IUU Coalition, a partnership of five European-based environmental NGOs working to end IUU fishing by improving global fisheries transparency and governance. The coalition has helped the EU Commission ensure that EU members deliver on their declared IUU policies and commitments.
The EU is also a global leader through its “carding scheme,” which draws on the cards that soccer referees hand out. That’s probably the most ambitious and effective unilateral tool out there.
It’s fitting that you mention that, especially since the World Cup recently ended. How does it work?
Evangelides: Non-EU states identified as having inadequate measures in place to prevent and deter IUU activity are asked to enter a dialogue with the EU. If the situation does not improve, the EU may issue the country a formal warning (yellow card). And then if the situation still doesn’t improve, the yellow card could be escalated to a red card, which would mean sanctions such as a trade ban that stops wild-caught fish from entering the EU market. In more than 10 years of its existence, the carding scheme has encouraged demonstratable fisheries reforms worldwide by generating more than 70 IUU dialogues and decisions in 27 countries.
Holmes: I have one final regional success story to share.
Let’s hear it!
Holmes: The Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) has a vessel monitoring system that allows tracking of fishing activity across the entire FFA membership region, which spans the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of 17 member countries. Centralized vessel tracking systems such as this one enable coastal and flag States to see the whole picture of what’s happening on the water. It’s like they can now see all the colors of a rainbow; if a country is working alone, they might only see one color.