Why the fate of small fishing nations is linked to sustainability in fisheries

Industrial fishing is mostly a global industry. Everyone knows that large fishing vessels can circumvent the Earth and harvest all its oceans. Even smaller semi-industrial vessels can reach international waters.

Whilst most commercial fish species live in the exclusive economic zones of coastal States, much of the fish we like to eat (tuna and tuna-like species, swordfish, herring, etc) like to migrate. This means that, inconveniently for regulators and policy-makers, fish can often weave in and out of national boundaries. Logically, the industrial activities of those pursuing these species cannot be regulated by one country alone.

Further, the way that fisheries regulation works means that, as soon as a fishing vessel leaves its country’s exclusive economic zone, it will be regulated not only by the laws of its own country (its ‘flag State’), but also by the laws of the coastal States where it may be aiming to fish and, depending on what species it targets or where in the ocean it operates, the conservation and management measures of RFMOs (regional fisheries management organisation).

This generally means that when an act of illegal fishing is carried out, the success of an investigation and any subsequent penalty or (where criminal laws have been breached) prosecution, will depend on the willing and active involvement of a number of countries and/or RFMOs. Though international law obligates countries to cooperate in these matters, the truth is that they frequently don’t (with some honourable exceptions).

Everyone involved with international environmental protection laws knows that things are far from simple. No overarching international fisheries body exists that can enforce compliance on fishing nations and so, international requirements tend to be obeyed only when they are beneficial for the fishing nations in question.

What this tends to mean is that big, powerful fishing nations tend to end up making executive decisions that benefit their fleets, whilst ignoring the requests of smaller fishing nations. The trouble with this is that the global fishing fleet is already too big, so if powerful States are getting most of the legal quota (and may I point out that legal does not necessarily equal sustainable), this can leave few agreeable options for small fishing nations.

This situation was exemplified at the meetings held over the past few weeks at the West and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (link: http://www.worldfishing.net/news101/industry-news/commission-disappointed-by-wcpfc-meeting ) where a new depth was reached in the lack of political commitment by some of the most powerful fishing nations to rein in overfishing of tuna.

And whilst legal overfishing carries on, the hidden tragedy of illegal fishing continues undeterred.

The good news is that some markets have begun to equip themselves with methodologies that have the potential to weed out illegal fishing products, and to identify fishing nations that foster or do not make an effort to curb illegal fishing practices.

The bad news is that in order to participate in those markets as ‘good guys’, States have to have certain fleet control tools and methods in place. Many small fishing nations do not have access to this. Some lack the support, whilst others are marred by fragile institutions that interfere with fisheries control processes, disengaging them from the rule of law.

Unfortunately this means that some small nations may not be able to demonstrate sufficient fisheries control to markets that require guarantees of legality, and may eventually get squeezed out. This, coupled with the irresponsible (though sadly legal) overfishing of some larger fishing nations can spell impending disaster for vulnerable States.

A new initiative, the Fair Fisheries And Markets Access (FFAMA) is developing to try to find a solution to this problem. You read it here first!

A perspective of the fishing vessel harbour in Freetown, Sierra Leone

A perspective of the fishing vessel harbour in Freetown, Sierra Leone