Bearing Witness: glorious reefs, seas of plastic and the horrors of dynamite fishing

An unexpected opportunity has recently taken me to the archipelagic waters near the Malaysian city of Tawau in the Celebes Sea. Near the port of Semporna, the islands of Mabul, Kapalai and Sipadan are set amongst reefs of rich biodiversity, offering a range of breathtaking underwater landscapes.

Photo credit: Sipadan.com

Photo credit: Sipadan.com

The area, where the EEZs of Borneo, Malaysia and the Philippines converge, is a dream destination for scuba divers, keen to explore the warm waters, varied life and lively dynamics of the reefs.

The reefs and their inhabitants are vulnerable to human activities and their balance is delicate. A stark reminder of this fact are the names that had originally been given to some of the diving sites by the pioneers of the once nascent diving industry here, such as Stingray City, Lobster Wall or Eel Valley. Yet, these sites no longer harbour the creatures that named them.

Whilst there are many factors that can affect marine biodiversity, some of the causes that are operative in this region became apparent as soon as my first immersion took place. Hard and soft plastics, which litter beaches and the sea surface in much of the region, were also present with alarming regularity on the reefs, sometimes alongside discarded fishing gear.

My elation at seeing a hawksbill turtle foraging soon turned to concern when I discovered a plastic glove resting by soft coral less than half a metre away from the animal. Though I rushed to pick it up and secure it to my wetsuit, I wondered how long it would be before the turtle encountered another piece.

Devoid of infrastructures, people in Semporna and the Celebes islands frequently discard plastic bottles and bags into the sea, and large hills of plastic debris can be seen slowly creeping into the ocean.

Photo Credit: AlJazeera.com

Photo Credit: AlJazeera.com

A less obvious, if even more insidious consequence of leaving plastics in the sea is that they break down into very small microscopic pieces, ending up being consumed by plankton and other creatures, becoming embedded in the ocean’s trophic chains and in fish that can make its way to human plates.

Despite the conservation slant of some of the diving operators, efforts can hardly dent the problem in the face of systemic failures of infrastructure, education and willingness.

Additionally, but perhaps saddest of all, every one of my dives was regularly marred by the startling underwater boom of repeated dynamite fishing. The sight of two large dead green turtles, one with its shell cracked open, and countless dead and dying fish was a desperate reminder of the devastation that dynamite fishing inflicts on the marine environment. Under the surface of the sea, the ruined reef can no longer harbour any life, becoming barren.

Image credit: oneocean.org

Image credit: oneocean.org

Whilst locals to Mabul informally confided that artisanal fishers from the Philippines regularly dynamite reefs in the archipelago, it also transpired that the borders between the three countries are frequently breached by unauthorised fishermen of any of the three nations.

The extremely destructive and wasteful practice of dynamite fishing is forbidden by the United Nations’ 1995 Fish Stocks Agreement. All State parties to this treaty are obliged to treat dynamite fishing as a very serious offence, and to seek its eradication whether it is engaged in by national vessels anywhere in the world, or by foreign vessels in the State’s jurisdictional waters. Philippines, a party to the agreement since 2014, has an international responsibility to eradicate the practice from its own waters, as well as those of its neighbours where its own vessels are involved.

Photo Credit: NOAA

Photo Credit: NOAA

Philippines was officially warned by the European Commission in respect of uncontrolled illegal fishing practices but such warning was withdrawn in April 2015.

Yet, in this region at least, dynamite fishing continues to be rampant and, what is worse, expected.

The beauty and richness of the reefs and the marine life they harbour certainly shines through. With so many threats, however, I wonder for how long.

Mercedes Rosello, 2015.

Sources:

1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement, available on: http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/convention_overview_fish_stocks.htm

European Policy on Illegal Fishing: Emergence of an International Trend?

Google Earth image featuring illegal fishing in European waters

Google Earth image featuring illegal fishing in European waters

Editor’s Note: This blog post was first published on http://iuufishing.ideasoneurope.eu on the 3rd of July 2014.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Union (EU) have singled out illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing as one of the main factors contributing to fishery depletion and a key obstacle to achieving sustainability.[1]

IUU fishing and overfishing have already affected the food security of vulnerable populations on land.[2]

At a time when fish has a growing importance in feeding the world, against a backdrop of our rapidly increasing human population, the environmental impacts of IUU fishing are a food security time bomb. This is made worse by the fact that pollution and climate change may also be undermining the ocean’s ability to produce food.

IUU fishing refers to fishing or fishing support activities performed in breach of fisheries management or conservation laws in national or international waters. It is a persistent phenomenon that thrives due to complex interactions.

IUU fishing is a complex problem, symptomatic of underlying factors that can also contribute to insecurity. Examples include a lack of distributive justice in resource access opportunities, inadequate and/or fragile legal and institutional frameworks, an absence of integrated monitoring, control and surveillance mechanisms and poor observance of the rule of law in maritime spaces.

For policies against IUU fishing to be successful, difficult problems such as the lack of governance accountability or the success of illegal global markets in wildlife and natural resources must be tackled.[3] The EU, current leader in the fight against IUU fishing, has developed a trade policy to address some of these issues.

In January 2010 the EU started to enforce a comprehensive system of port and market controls. By way of a pan-European law (Council Regulation 1005/2008 “the IUU Regulation”), the EU has devised a WTO-compatible methodology for detecting IUU fishing trade flows as well as identifying States that do not address the illegal fishing activities of their fleets.[4]

By engaging exporting States in a certification system that guarantees fish capture legality, the European Commission is able to identify exporting countries that allow IUU fishing trade flows to reach Europe. The Commission deals with this by working with such countries in the first instance, under a warning that failure to improve IUU fishing compliance controls may result in trade restrictions.

To date, the Commission has formally warned several countries, namely Panama, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Togo, Vanuatu, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Korea and Ghana. The European Council, following the Commission’s recommendation, has banned seafood imports from Guinea, Belize and Cambodia on IUU fishing concerns.[5]

The IUU Regulation also enables European governments to use port tools in the fight against IUU fishing. For example, it establishes a system of notifications and inspections for fishing vessels and refrigerated seafood cargo vessels. It has also established the foundations for the creation of an EU illegal vessel black list. Vessels that feature in this list are not able to access European ports for commercial purposes.

The fact that combatting IUU fishing is considered a priority in European policy is also exemplified by the recent publication of the Commission’s External Action Service ‘s Security Strategy for the Gulf of Guinea.[6] IUU fishing has been integrated in this document as a priority due to its impact on food security as well as its links with transnational organised crime.[7]

This is a policy trend with international echoes. It is unlikely to be coincidental that the African Union’s new strategy has this year been expanded to include IUU fishing. Further, in the United States, President Obama has recently announced the creation of a comprehensive framework to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud.[8]

There have also been international developments, with the UN Fisheries Committee (COFI) formally endorsing the Guidelines for Flag State Performance. This voluntary instrument sets out a common minimum due diligence standard for combatting IUU fishing. COFI has also assessed the ratification status of the Port State Measures Agreement, an agreement widely hailed as a vital legislative tool to prevent illegally obtained seafood from entering the ports of signatory nations.

IUU fishing is a global problem that requires the collective, sustained effort of governments as well as industry and civil society. Despite the challenges, the above policy developments demonstrate that there is a deepening understanding of IUU fishing and a growing will to address it.

[1] The IUU strategy of the European Union is set out in the DG Mare website. For more information, please see http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/maritime_affairs_and_fisheries/fisheries_resources_and_environment/l66052_en.htm

[2] See, for example, the Madagascar food security study carried out by Le Manach et al in 2012 concerning unreported fishing and stock decline.
[3]https://www.europol.europa.eu/sites/default/files/publications/4aenvironmental_crime_threatassessment_2013_-_public_version.pdf
[4] http://ec.europa.eu/fisheries/cfp/illegal_fishing/index_en.htm
[5] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-12-1215_en.htm
[6] http://eeas.europa.eu/statements/docs/2014/140317_01_en.pdf
[7] https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/2011/issue-paper-transnational-organized-crime-in-the-fishing-industry.html
[8] Full press release: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/06/17/presidential-memorandum-comprehensive-framework-combat-illegal-unreporte

Overfishing is Mismanagement

Overfishing does more damage to the ocean than all other human activities together

Overfishing does more damage to the ocean than all other human activities together

The Economist brings two lucid articles on an obvious and yet hidden truth: the fact that the ocean is on its metaphorical knees. If the ocean was a bank account it would be careering towards the red at a blistering pace.

Many of us who have been studying fisheries policies and governance structures for a while have known for a long time that those responsible for administering the ocean have behaved like irresponsible managers, squandering it away.

In a way, we are all responsible. I heard someone say long ago that human beings are badly wired to see the whole picture and that we rush into taking the path to short-term gain without properly considering what the consequences of our actions will mean for other people’s children. This ignorant attitude has certainly characterised human domination over the oceans. Not only have we enshrined in law that ocean space beyond the exclusive reach of coastal States is a ‘free for all’ but we have refrained from exercising the required restraint to avoid the collapse of entire fisheries, rushing in for the kill in case anyone else would beat us to it.

Rampant overfishing has caused more harm to the ocean than all other human activities put together, according to the Economist articles. As a consequence of our actions, the ocean is losing its ability to sustain life. And the legal and governance frameworks that should stop this decline are woefully inadequate to be any use. And yet, better long term fisheries management would make the industry better off by an annual margin of $50 Bn, according to the World Bank.

Can the decline be helped? The are actions we could take, if we really cared. Responsible government agencies and NGOs have called for a global register of fishing vessels, a sort of registration number that does not change when the vessel is sold or renamed. Could you imagine cars without registration plates? Ships should have them too.

The other action is tracking technology. It is all very well to have marine protected areas, but there is no way of ensuring their integrity unless it is known where fishing vessels are. The technology already exists and there are few reasons not to use it. Heard of AIS? Cheap, available to everyone and widely used. It is time to stop the excuses and start using technology to track the whereabouts of fishing vessels.

Governments should demonstrate that they are capable of tracking the whereabouts of their fishing fleets. If they are not, their ability to licence ships for fishing should be removed by an international court. Vessel masters that want to fish in international or foreign waters will then have to register with a country that is responsible enough to track their vessels proactively and stop them from getting into places where they have no right to fish.

Many have decried insurmountable obstacles to achieve rational management of the fishing industry but, with today’s technological tools, the real reason lies in a lack of global vision and in myopic greed.

Putting it bluntly, overfishing is mismanagement and everyone knows what happens to badly managed stuff – after a while, it goes bust. When it comes to the ocean, that is something we simply cannot afford.

http://www.economist.com/news/international/21596990-humans-are-damaging-high-seas-now-oceans-are-doing-harm-back-deep-water

http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21596942-new-management-needed-planets-most-important-common-resource-tragedy-high

Shark carcasses at a wholesale market

Rampant overfishing is leading to ocean degradation.

Illegal fishing in the age of global GPS: governments talk whilst making little use of available technology

Conversations on the subject of illegal fishing tend to gravitate around regions of the world that are known poaching black spots (be it the historically fertile and vulnerable waters of West Africa, the tuna-rich waters of the Indian ocean or the South-Western Atlantic and its lucrative banks of tooth-fish).

Despite the deserved attention that those marine spaces are paid, it is worth remembering that the curse of illegal fishing also takes place much closer to home. Though European waters are (theoretically at least) amongst the better controlled marine regions in the world, it seems that a shocking amount of illegal activity takes place here too, right under our noses.

This week, a newspaper in Malta has highlighted that illegal fishing activity by large fishing trawlers has been more or less commonplace in the protected marine reserve that surrounds the island in recent years (see link below).

Apparently, Maltan authorities have been able to identify poaching activity by various means, but it looks like some key discoveries were down to the deployment of a simple and affordable surveillance tool: AIS. Whilst I am sure that they must have invested in other systems of detection, I can’t help wondering why they didn’t start using AIS before, since it is affordable and easy to use. Vessel crews can switch off their ship’s AIS, but it looks like they didn’t even bother doing this during their illegal incursions into the marine reserve.

Given that fisheries resources around the world are on their metaphorical knees, coastal nations should be watching their seas like hawks. And why are the flag States of the vessels doing the poaching not calling them to task as soon as they cross the line into a protected marine area or the border of an EEZ where they don’t have permission to fish? In the age of global GPS, satellite surveillance and smart-phones, it is increasingly difficult to believe that lack of technological resources is the real problem.

http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/en/newsdetails/news/national/New-control-centre-discovers-widespread-illegal-trawling-20140212

Sea Shepherd to Assist in Guatemalan Anti-Poaching Operations

In an unexpected turn of events, the Guatemalan Department of Fisheries has asked Sea Shepherd to assist in surveillance and patrol operations in its maritime waters, according to an article by Maritime Executive ( http://www.maritime-executive.com/article/Sea-Shepherd-Helps-Guatemala-with-Poaching-Problem-2014-02-11/). Concerned by high levels of poaching for Marlin during the winter and early spring months, the Guatemalan government will be relying on support from the SS vessel Brigitte Bardot.

It has also been reported that the Sea Shepherd, who have incorporated throughout various Latin American jurisdictions, will be rolling out an educational programme and a series of presentations on marine conservation in Guatemalan schools.

Should States be internationally accountable for illegal and excessive fishing?

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. 

Aggressive ocean grabs: the Sea is not the only loser

The outrage of land grabs pales by comparison to the exploitation of vulnerable and increasingly rare ocean resources by some fishing nations.

As China’s giant fishing fleets plough the ocean unabated, small fishing nations are suffering devastating losses in their own marine capture and processing sectors. Their fishing vessels, not being able to compete with constant and extensive exploitation by Chinese fleets in neighbouring waters, are coming back to their home ports empty-netted.

Fiji has recently reported the closure of important segments of its tuna industry, with expected job losses of about 8,000 and growing concerns over its food security.

Maritime nations, entrusted by international law to be the stewards of the ocean, are in fact the main contributors to its devastation, as they are subsidising their ludicrously oversized and no longer profitable fishing fleets to continue their plunder. The Japanese government spends USD 4.6 Billion in subsidies to unprofitable fishing fleets, whilst China follows closely with subsidies of USD 4.1 Billion. Other States that dangerously subsidise their industrial fishing fleets are the EU (USD 2.7 Billion), the US (USD 1.8 Billion) and the Russian Federation (USD 1.5 Billion).

The impact on the oceans of the relentless overexploitation by the biggest fishing nations is profound. In the Pacific Ocean, valuable commercial species such as Albacore and Bluefin tuna are shrinking at unprecedented rates.

Sources: Pew Environment Group; Undercurrent News.

Some tuna are shrinking rapidly in the Pacific Ocean

Some tuna populations are shrinking rapidly in the Pacific Ocean