The global marine fisheries industry relies on harvesting limited living resource and requires careful regulation in order to prevent over-exploitation of fish stocks, but some characteristics of the sector make regulation extremely challenging. Factors such as the dual role of the State as ocean steward and economic actor and the policy of competitive open access to high seas resources adopted by the international community have resulted in important governance weaknesses.
One of the most pernicious consequences of inadequate governance is the pervasive presence of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. IUU fishing is a major contributor to overfishing and a significant obstacle to sustainability. Its effects extend beyond causing damage to fish stocks and the marine environment: IUU fishing has also been linked to organised crime and food insecurity. It has also been recognised as intrinsically damaging to the industry itself and to the global economy at large.
The international community, aware of the need for conservation and concerned that IUU fishing may have become a chronic industry malaise, has made a sustained legislative effort to clarify how shared marine resources should be managed and protected. As part of this trend, the conservation responsibilities of nations whose fishing vessels harvest the oceans beyond the boundaries of their Exclusive Economic Zones have been reinforced and clarified. But in spite of legislative developments IUU fishing and irresponsible overexploitation continue to be rampant.
It has been argued that the sustainable expansion of international law can only be supported by a corresponding development of structures and processes of legal accountability (Jutta Brunee, 2006). In light of this assertion, legislation to define the responsibilities of fishing nations should have been developed alongside associated accountability mechanisms. Has this been observed by international legislators in the context of global fisheries?
There is an emerging debate on the extent to which flag States should be held responsible for the IUU fishing activities of vessels flying their flags and the extent of their liability (Palma, Tsameny and Edeson, 2010). Despite the nebulous nature of State accountability in International Law, it is becoming increasingly important that debate on this subject gathers pace.