Nature and Biodiversity

Why illegal fishing must be stamped out on environmental and humanitarian grounds

Illegal fishing damages the environment and is tied up with human rights abuses

Illegal fishing damages the environment and is tied up with human rights abuses Image: Photo by Riddhiman Bhowmik on Unsplash

Tetsuji Ida
Senior Staff Writer and Editorial Writer, Kyodo News
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Climate and Nature

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  • Dangerous, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing practices are being carried out worldwide.
  • Illegal fishing poses a serious threat to the environment and is also linked to human rights abuses on board fishing vessels.
  • The forthcoming G7 Summit in May will be an important venue for discussing the strengthening of international illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) measures.

“On the ship, it was normal to work 20 hours a day or more. And, when a machine broke down, they made us work without sleep for two or three days to fix it. Some of my colleagues took their own lives and I saw a man jump into the sea trying to escape and he got shot. Illegal fishing is commonplace because no one is watching.”

Sitting on the dirt floor of a house on the outskirts of the Thai fishing town Mahachai, 52-year-old Watcharin Kanchoopol relays his painful experiences working in the illegal fishing industry in a quiet voice.

Although his story is shocking and full of surprises, his six years from 2010 to 2016 as a fisherman on an illegal Thai vessel are not unique. This is because illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and slave labour remain rampant in the world's pelagic fishing areas.


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Illegal fishing is the greatest threat to marine ecosystems

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, IUU fishing is one of the greatest threats to marine ecosystems. This is due to its potent ability to undermine national and regional efforts to manage fisheries sustainably and endeavors to conserve marine biodiversity. Rampant IUU is squeezing the livelihoods of many small-scale fishermen. And, in many cases, serious violations of fishermen’s human rights go hand-in-hand with IUU fishing.

IUU fishing often involves ignoring the regulations of various countries and international organizations and underreporting catches. Other tactics include using explosives and poisons to take fish, operating with stateless fishing vessels, rewriting vessel names and flying flags of countries other than their originating ones. According to the FAO, IUU catches can reach up to 26 million tons per year and can earn up to $23 billion.

As one of the world's largest consumers and importers of marine products, Japan is no stranger to IUU fishing. In August 2021, the Environmental Justice Foundation, a British head-quartered environmental group, released the results of its investigation based on satellite tracking of Chinese fishing vessels and interviews with many fishermen. This report indicated that tuna caught by Chinese fishing vessels involved in IUU fishing and severe human rights abuses against crew members were often brought to the Japanese market. In some cases, major trading companies had purchased them and resold them to the Japanese market.

Domestically, the Fisheries Agency of Japan found that a large amount of unreported fishing of juvenile glass eels in Japan has continued for a long period of time and it has now increased the fines for this activity.

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Illegal fishing must be tackled as a global issue

Eradicating IUU fishing is a critical global challenge if we are to achieve sustainable fisheries. The key is to strengthen efforts in the United States, Europe and Japan, which have large seafood markets, to end IUU fishing. The situation is serious, but international IUU measures have begun to make some progress.

In 2005, the EU enacted the IUU Fisheries Regulation. This requires that exporters of marine products into the EU market must submit a catch certificate issued by the government agency of the exporting country. For countries that do not comply with this rule and have inadequate IUU countermeasures, the EU issues a ‘yellow card,’ requiring the strengthening of countermeasures. If no improvement is made within a certain period of time, a 'red card’ is issued and imports are suspended from that country.

In 2018, the US introduced the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP). This requires businesses in countries that export 13 types of marine products, including abalone, shark and tuna, which are considered high risk for IUU, to submit certificates to the government through their importers.

Biden signs MOU on illegal fishing

The US Biden administration is focusing its efforts on combating IUU. President Biden signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on IUU in June 2022, directing government agencies to make a concerted effort to eliminate it. This MOU is highly important because it is positioned as a matter of national security. The MOU called for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to increase the number of fish species covered by the SIMP programme and NOAA proposed a draft rule to add species or groups of species to the SIMP in December 2022.

In the MOU, President Biden noted that: "the seafood markets of the United States, the European Union and Japan account for 55% of the world's total.” He also stated that he would strengthen international cooperation with Japan and other countries. The US is also seeking to strengthen IUU measures within the Quad, a cooperative framework among the four countries of Japan, the US, Australia and India.

Japan starts to clamp down on illegal fishing

For a long time, Japan's IUU control measures have been criticised for lagging behind those of Europe and the US. However, the Act on Ensuring the Proper Domestic Distribution and Importation of Specified Aquatic Animals and Plants, which requires the issuance of catch certificates for certain fishery products, has finally been enacted and took effect in December 2022. This is a very important step towards eliminating the flow of IUU marine flow into Japan.

For the time being, however, the target species are limited to two domestic species (sea cucumber and abalone) and four imported species (squid, saury, mackerel and Japanese pilchard). As Japan imports a wide variety of marine products, there is much room for improvement.

Environmental groups and others are calling for the target species to be expanded as soon as possible and for all fish species to be subject to the system, as is the case in the EU.


Global cooperation is needed to close the net on all illegal fishing

Despite various measures being taken, IUU and human rights violations continue in the world's oceans. It is important that Japan, the US and Europe, which all have large seafood markets, cooperate to prevent IUU products from entering their markets. International coordination among these three states is of utmost importance. Otherwise, IUU marine products excluded from one market will flow into the markets of countries with weaker regulations.

It is also imperative that the necessary channels and international forums are used to encourage emerging countries, such as China, which are expanding their fisheries, to strengthen their response measures. The forthcoming G7 Summit in May will be an important venue for discussing the strengthening of international IUU measures.

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