The European parliament has voted overwhelmingly to bring in new rules cracking down on illegal fishing, which could help coastal states in heavily fished African waters confront criminal activity. Thursday’s vote to overhaul Europe’s external fleet legislation could deter commercial operators from encroaching on waters relied upon by local fishing communities. The new measures include a requirement that vessels that have changed flags must show they were not engaged in illegal fishing for the previous two years. Operators that have been sanctioned for serious infringements over the previous 12 months will not be authorised to fish abroad.
“If implemented properly, this kind of legislation could be a strong deterrent for illegal fishing,” says Per Erik Bergh, of Stop Illegal Fishing and Fish-i Africa, which provides monitoring, control and surveillance support to eight east African countries bordering the Indian Ocean. “These are expensive operations, and denying fishing companies the right to fish, even for a year, could put them out of business altogether.”
Said Jama Mohamed, deputy minister of fisheries and marine resources in Somalia, part of the Fish-i Africa network, said: “There are so many vessels in the sea here – it’s full of them. Somalia needs more support to eliminate IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fishing. It’s costing us a lot of money and resources – we need enforcement capacity to catch these illegal vessels.”
Mohamed cited an incident in October when the Somali authorities were initially powerless to stop a Greek-owned trawler fishing along Somalia’s shores, which are reserved for local fishermen. He spotted the 28-metre vessel in a satellite image but it was gone by the time he was able to report it. With no off-shore coastguard to chase away the high-powered industrial trawlers that fish nearby, they are able to slip in and out of Somali waters before disappearing with large amounts of fish, which are then sold to international markets.
Because of the country’s membership of Fish-i, Kenyan port authorities were able to alert their neighbours when the vessel pulled into port, and the owner paid a fine to the Somali authorities. But with vast coastlines unpoliced, even vessels that are caught and fined can resume fishing. Thursday’s reforms are an attempt to tackle this.
Among the measures is article 39, which requires the creation of an electronic register that identifies authorised vessels as well as the name and location of the company owner and beneficial owner. The move has not been welcomed by the fishing industry.“We want this information to be public, but little by little,” says Daniel Voces, policy advisor at the lobbying group Europêche. “We’re talking about business confidentiality, if everyone knows where we fish and who’s getting the money. As a principle we are not opposed, but we need to study how to do it.”
NGOs and environmentalists, however, have applauded moves to improve traceability. “For the first time we will see who benefits from global fishing though a public register,” says MEP Linnéa Engström, vice-chair of the European parliament’s fisheries committee. “This is crucial to stop overfishing and to protect marine ecosystems.”
The parliamentary vote is the first step towards passing legislation. Next month representatives from parliament, the European commission and the European council will meet to agree on a final version. A document obtained by the Guardian, however, suggests the European council will resist some of the bill’s central measures, which could delay legislation for months.
Under article 5, a member state may only authorise an operator or vessel that hasn’t been “subject to a sanction for a serious infringement” – a clause that has been deleted in the “council general approach”, the unofficial position held by the 28 member states. The Council also opposes a key “claw-back” clause, which would allow the commission to revoke authorisations from law-breaking operators that EU states fail to penalise.
“We’ve seen examples of Italian and Lithuanian vessels fishing in west Africa, arrested for illegal fishing, then continuing to fish – and no action was taken by Italy or Lithuania,” says Béatrice Gorez, of the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements.
“So even if you have robust legislation, if member states are able to carry on not doing anything, it won’t change. Hopefully this legislation will provide the European commission with the ability to intervene. We can’t continue saying, ‘The European Union are leaders in terms of sustainability’ whilst allowing some European companies to get away with murder.”
While sustainable fisheries partnership agreements between the EU and coastal states impose strict rules on European vessels, hundreds operate outside these under private agreements with coastal states, many of which are unable or unwilling to impose strict rules.
The idea of the new bill is to put all European vessels on a “level playing field”, as Engström puts it, and subject dubious operators to stricter sanctions at home. “We know that we have a lot of illegal fishing going on, that it’s tied to other criminal activities – that it’s linked to money laundering and tax evasion. Resistance to cleaning up all of these things is huge, because industry has good lobbyists. But this has to stop.”