Photo Credit: World Ocean Council

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) sets out the legal framework for the rights and obligations of states within which all activities in the oceans and seas for the conservation and management of marine living resources must be carried out. Since oceans are seamlessly interconnected UNCLOS requires collaboration and cooperation between states which may be through bi-lateral, regional and international instruments, agreements  and organisations. These are both binding and voluntary in nature.

However, the provisions of UNCLOS and the Fish Stocks Agreement relating to the conservation and management of fish stocks are not fully implemented, as overfishing, IUU fishing and destructive fishing practices continue to challenge the sustainability of fisheries around the world. By definition “IUU fishing includes fishing and fishing-related activities conducted in contravention of national, regional and international laws; non-reporting, misreporting or under-reporting of information on fishing operations and their catches; fishing by “Stateless” vessels; fishing in convention areas of Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) by non-party vessels; fishing activities which are not regulated by States and cannot be easily monitored and accounted for.”

IUU and overfishing is denuding the worlds fish stocks across all corners of the globe. This results in economic losses to countries with equally significant impacts on livelihoods and is increasingly being associated with organized criminal behaviour slave/convicts as crews, financial crimes, human trafficking, drug and arms smuggling and the dumping of toxic waste at sea. It is not a restrictive coastal state problem neither is only a threat to food security and traditional livelihoods of millions of people but is an environmental hazard to all of mankind, has replaced piracy as the dominant maritime security concern.

IUU fishing occurs not just in the high seas but also within exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and can be carried out by foreign as well as national vessels. The areas beyond national jurisdiction, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, are highly vulnerable to overfishing and IUU fishing. The lack of any regional regulatory frameworks apart from the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission further endangers the sustainability of the region’s fish resources.

Further, in the absence of  international agreement on the jurisdiction of the Areas beyond National Jurisdiction combined with rapid advancement of fishing technology, high returns on investment,  lack of political will and completely inadequate regional resources devoted to observation, monitoring and managing the high seas,  the Indo-Pacific is the  favourite fishing grounds of  the 15,000 strong Chinese Distant Water Fishing Vessel Fleet, many of them armed.  It has been reported that “According to the latest data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, fish stocks are at risk of collapsing in many parts of the world due to overexploitation. It is estimated that 34% of global stocks are overfished compared with 10% in 1974, meaning they are being exploited at a pace where the fish population cannot replenish itself.  Declining fish stocks threaten to worsen poverty and endanger coastal communities that rely on fishing. Roughly 39 million people depend on capture fisheries for their livelihood. Healthy seas are also important for food security, with fish providing 20% of animal protein needs on average for 3.3 billion people.”

The prospect of a massive shortage of fatty acids and essential nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals and micronutrients for millions of people, loss of livelihoods of coastal populations, ruin of the marine bio-system  and other unknown consequences can be calamitous to mankind.

The menace of IUU fishing and overfishing transcends national maritime zones. This transboundary nature of IUU fishing means that regional coordination and governance are essential to underpin national efforts. A multi-lateral approach structured around a formal architecture that integrates Maritime Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance and Response systems, coordinates state resources and promotes multi-state cooperation towards sharing of information, training and operations is a felt need to curtail this menace. Coastal states need help in developing and implementing effective licensing and legal regimes to ensure sustainable fishing practices.  In addition, matters are not helped by the subsidies and state funding that some countries like China provides to keep unprofitable fishing fleets at sea. Global fisheries subsidies are estimated to range from USD 14 billion to USD 54 billion per year that some countries provide for distant water unviable fishing. A methodology for such ‘catch’ to be traced and made unsaleable need to be also addressed.

While the overall trend in the sustainability of fisheries is overwhelmingly negative some actions are being taken to improve the sustainability of stocks by increasing compliance and addressing economic and social factors which contribute to IUU and overfishing. These have only achieved very limited success since there are significant economic gains arising from IUU fishing.  Under the mandate from the WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference held in 2017 and the UN SDG Target 14.6, negotiators were given the task of securing agreement to prohibit fisheries subsidies,  with special and differential treatment being an integral part of the negotiations. They have failed to reach consensus.

The need to adopt an integrated eco-system approach to sustainable global fishing cannot be overemphasised. Efforts to combat IUU fishing need to recognise a basic fact that as laws for more stringent, transparent, trusted and legal fishing are adopted the greater are the rewards from IUU fishing.

As the foregoing illustrates overfishing and IUU fishing is a latent threat to the very survival of mankind. Towards understanding the issues involved and potential remediation a conference is planned to be held in April 2022 to explore:-

  1. The main drivers of IUU fishing.
  2. Opportunities and challenges of eliminating IUU fishing related to the implementation of relevant international agreements and consider what types of new partnerships are needed to address the issue.
  3. Take stock of some of the newest technologies available, including blockchain and artificial intelligence, and analyses how these can contribute to ending IUU fishing and achieving trust and transparency  in the seafood supply chains.
  4. The role of subsidies in overfishing and IUU fishing

Those interested to present papers and join may please contact us.


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