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Pirate fishing steals from poor and wrecks marine environment

Pirate fishers harm economies, ecosystems, and often their crew. Shawn Eggert/USN

When the Russian owned factory ship Oleg Naydenov was recently seized by armed Senegalese commandos for illegal fishing in Senegal’s exclusive territorial 12-mile fishing zone, it shone a much-needed spotlight on the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, or “pirate fishing” as it is commonly known.

The worldwide loss of fish stocks from pirate fishing costs legitimate fisheries between US$10-23.5 billion every year. Pirate fishers are also notorious for their involvement in smuggling drugs and firearms and for serious human rights abuses.

Developing countries with poor governance are particularly targeted by pirate fishers. For example, more than a third (37%) of all reported catches from the coast of West Africa are thought to be illegal. Since 2010, the Environmental Justice Foundation has documented more than 200 reports of illegal fishing there by Korean vessels alone. Such plundering of the seas deprives law-abiding fishers of earnings, and food.

From an environmental perspective, illegal fishing has a considerable impact on the replenishment of fish stocks. By using banned and harmful practices, pirates remove juvenile fish that have not had a chance to breed, and destroy vital fish habitats. A study from Guinea-Bissau reported that if all fishing nets of an illegal mesh size (and so small enough to catch juveniles) were eliminated, legal fishers would see their profits rise by perhaps 50–100%.

The human rights violations which occur aboard illegal fishing vessels are horrific. Poor people in search of work are routinely trafficked across borders then sold into illegal fishing by professional brokers. They then become trapped in a world of abuse, intimidation and work for little or no pay. Once trapped their chances for escape are limited.

To catch a pirate

Hi-tech tools are increasingly deployed against illegal fishers. For example, by following tracking transmitters on ships with satellites, authorities can identify if a vessel is fishing where it shouldn’t. In some regions the amount of illegal fishing has been reduced, for example in the Antarctic where it has dropped to less than 10% of previous levels. This has been possible due to well-funded surveillance and worldwide cooperation.

In Europe, major trade sanctions were for the first time announced against countries operating flags of convenience. This practice allows boat owners to purchase the right to fly the flag of nations that have not signed the UN Law of the Sea. As such the boat does not need to recognise international fishing law.

Under the new sanctions, fish imports from Belize, Guinea and Cambodia will be banned from the European Union, while South Korea, Ghana and Curaçao have all been warned that they will have to show progress on tackling pirate fishing within six months or face a similar fish import ban.

Prevention, not cure

Although fishing vessels have names and other identifiers, these are not permanent and can be easily painted over and changed by their owners. This makes it incredibly difficult for authorities to recognise specific vessels engaged in illegal fishing and to track misconduct. Introducing mandatory, permanent ship registrations in accordance with standards of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has been recommended by organisations such as the Environmental Justice Foundation and Oceana.

The IMO ship numbering system is already well recognised and the new records it could create would produce an independent audit trail for fishing vessels and their ownership. In November 2013, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) became the first marine management organisation to require IMO numbers on all vessels fishing within its jurisdiction.

In the fight against illegal fishing, much could also be gained from tighter port controls. In Europe, Council Regulation (EC) 1005/2008 provides a framework that allows illegal fish to be seized in European ports. However, some countries implement this law more assiduouly than others; Spain alone is believed to account for over 50% of consignment rejections across the whole of the EU.

Given that pirate fishing undoubtedly causes serious environmental problems and poses a threat to food security for some of the world’s poorest countries, it is an issue that needs urgent, co-ordinated international attention.

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