According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), one-third of fish stocks are overfished while another 60% cannot sustain increases in fishing, a problem exacerbated by illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. It doesn’t have to be this way, and a recent study suggests that States can better detect and curtail IUU fishing through improved sharing of fisheries information.
One reason overfishing is such a persistent problem is that fishing vessels frequently operate across international boundaries, and many governments lack the technological, operational, and institutional capacity they need to collect, analyze, and share information about what’s happening in their waters.
The study, by the UK-based Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), found that sharing fisheries data—including which vessels are operating where and how—can make the involved States both more aware of and more able to combat IUU fishing. This finding holds even when only one government shares such information, unreciprocated.
Such cooperation could be enormously helpful, for example, when a vessel flagged to one country fishes in another’s waters and then offloads the catch in the port of a third State. The benefits grow as countries increase the amount of information shared.
The Pew Charitable Trusts believes that governments should co-develop standards for sharing data among themselves, and that these standards should require governments to share information on vessel identification and ownership, targeted catch, where each boat catches its fish, vessel history, and any data on past noncompliance, including IUU activity. By sharing this information with each other or through their networks, such as regional fisheries bodies or cooperative regional groups, governments can help authorities investigate and act against suspected illegal activity and better manage their fish stocks. Cooperation among all parties with a stake in fishing operations, and attention to reducing technological, operational, and institutional capacity constraints in countries sharing information, could make an enormous impact towards ending IUU fishing.
Such information sharing has yielded real-world results as well, and should encourage governments to cooperate more. Among the incidents highlighted in a Stop Illegal Fishing study of events from 2016 to 2018 was the story of STS-50, a vessel suspected of illegal poaching of toothfish in the Southern Ocean. Feeling the squeeze from authorities in pursuit, the captain of STS-50 piloted the vessel to the Western Indian Ocean and attempted to use false information and documents to get repairs and safe harbor at various ports. But thanks to the information sharing efforts of FISH-i Africa, a partnership of eight East African countries fighting IUU, ports were on high alert, and maritime authorities, Interpol and other organizations, such as OceanMind, helped the Indonesian Navy find and apprehend STS-50. Through port controls, thorough documentation checks, and—most critically—cooperation at every step, an illegal vessel was stopped in its tracks.
But information sharing must also be done at a larger scale.
The FAO Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) is the first legally binding international agreement targeting IUU fishing, and parties to the treaty must electronically exchange and publish information for the Agreement to meet its objective. Along with information on fishing activities that vessels are required to provide as they request access to ports, the PSMA requires parties to exchange details about inspection results and information on port denials; 93 governments are bound by the treaty as of May 5, 2021.
In 2019, the FAO was tasked by the parties to the PSMA to develop a system to facilitate this information exchange and is making a first version of the PSMA Global Information Exchange System (GIES) available to those parties before they next meet in late May. The GIES will allow PSMA parties to meet the treaty’s information exchange obligations by facilitating sharing of inspection reports and notices of denial of port access. Broad and comprehensive use of the GIES could result in significant progress in the fight against illicit activities.
As vessels roam almost every acre of the global ocean chasing shared resources, it is more vital than ever that national, regional, and international fisheries management bodies have information about that activity. International cooperation to exchange information and equip authorities with the technological, operational, and institutional means to fight IUU is integral to successful fisheries management.
Dawn Borg Costanzi is a senior officer and Janelle Hangen is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.