“Don’t worry, there’s plenty of fish in the sea”…Or is there?
A tale of Illegal Unreported and Unregulated fishing practices
Our Blue Planet
We live on a blue planet; oceans cover 70 percent of the world’s surface and play a central role in supporting life on earth. The ocean supports a multitude of life forms, ranging from the blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, to tiny microorganisms.
Biological diversity is imperative in maintaining the functionality and productivity of marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Marine biodiversity makes habitats more resilient to environmental change, and provides basic goods and ecosystem services that are crucial to human life and poverty reduction.
An Essential Ecosystem
In recent decades, there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of fishery products used for direct human consumption. Overall, the growth in fish consumption has enhanced people’s diets around the world, largely due to the fact that fish supply high quality proteins containing all essential amino acids.
In 2016, total fish production reached an all-time high, 88 percent of the total fish production (151 million out of 171 million tonnes) was directed for human consumption. This is an increase of 67 percent since the 1960s. In fact, the annual growth rate of fish available for human consumption has surpassed that of meat from all terrestrial animals combined.
Oceans are integral for coastal economies. Fisheries and aquaculture provide livelihoods to around 820 million people worldwide from harvesting, processing, marketing, and distribution. For many, fishing also forms part of their traditional cultural identity. Additionally, aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world; the market value of marine, coastal resources, and industries is estimated at $3 trillion per year or about 5% of global GDP.
Over 60% of the world’s major marine ecosystems that underpin livelihoods have been degraded or are being used unsustainably.
As biodiversity declines, so too does the resilience of our ecosystems, which have been dramatically transformed as a result of human action. The anthropogenic degradation of the ocean’s biodiversity has created serious challenges and threats for human security, most notably for food security and sustainable livelihood strategies.
Biological diversity in the oceans has decreased dramatically since industrialization began in the 19th century. One of the primary causes of the decline in ocean wildlife populations is due to the destruction of habitats by the increased exploitation of fish stocks through overfishing and trawler fishing.
Overfishing can have severe adverse effects on marine biodiversity. Every single aquatic plant and animal has a role to play when it comes to balancing the ecology. In order to thrive, marine creatures require a certain kind of environment and nutrients, for which they may be dependent on other organisms. Overfishing can wreak havoc, as it destroys the environment, marine ecology, and completely disrupts the natural food chain of an ecosystem. Ultimately, if the food chain breaks at any level, it will have a domino effect on all living organisms in the chain.
Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUU)
The exploitation of global fish stocks is often illegal, unreported, and unregulated. This phenomenon has been classified as IUU fishing practices. IUU fishing is a serious threat to the sustainable management of fisheries worldwide. These practices are depleting fish stocks, undermining responsible management, destroying marine ecosystems, and threatening the livelihoods of coastal fishermen and communities. A new analysis by the World Wildlife Fund, finds that over 85 percent of global fish stocks can be considered at significant risk of IUU fishing.
The prominence of IUU fishing practices is largely due to increased economic incentives. There are multiple methods fishers engage in to bypass regulations and management:
- They can overfish by fishing in areas where they are not authorized,
- Fish out of season,
- Underreport catches and discard low-value fish,
- Tranship at sea to avoid detection, and
- Report catches of one species for another in order to avoid quota violations, among other activities.
Illegal fishing often occurs because there is inadequate or ineffective monitoring, control, and surveillance (MCS) of fishing activities. This is often a consequence of capacity and resource constraints, or corruption and a lack of effective penalties or sanctions in place to deter the activity.
China, West Africa, and IUU Fishing
West Africa is one of the most diverse and economically important fishing zones in the world. West African fishing zones employ nearly 7 million people across the region and act as the region’s principal source of protein.
Unfortunately, these waters have suffered from years of overfishing by large foreign commercial fishing boats. With more and more boats searching for fewer and fewer fish, fish stocks are on the decline and conflicts between local and foreign fleets are on the rise. The main perpetrator of IUU fishing in the West African region are Chinese Distant Water Fishing (DWF) companies, including China’s largest DWF company, China National Fisheries Corporation.
China is the world’s top fish producer by far, and since 2002 has also been the largest exporter of fish and fish products. As the world’s largest producer of wild catch, China’s fishing activities have a significant impact on the sustainability of domestic and global fish stocks. Nearly 90% of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted, and there is no doubt that fisheries subsidies play a big role.
China provides substantial subsidies to its fishing operations. In 2013, the Chinese central government spent RMB 40.383 billion ($6.5 billion USD) on domestic fisheries subsidies, 94 percent of the subsidies were allocated specifically for fuel.
Historically, China’s expansive coastline has provided the country with an abundant amount of marine resources. However, due to excessive fishing practices, the majority of China’s coastal and inland fisheries resources are heavily strained and in decline. The intensity of fishing significantly exceeds sustainable levels. Ultimately, this has forced the country to seek out and exploit other regions of the world for marine resources. This is mainly the case in the national waters or exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the 7 West African countries (The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal, Ghana, and Sierra Leone), whose Monitoring Control and Surveillance (MCS) systems are relatively weak.
Greenpeace, as well as West African authorities, have documented the cases of Chinese companies operating in West Africa over the years, involving companies ranging from the big Chinese stated-owned to the small and medium private companies. Chinese IUU fishing practises have contributed significantly to the decline of West African fishing grounds. This illegal activity contributes to unemployment, food insecurity, and desperation in the region and may push fishermen into illegal activities like piracy.
Oceans are our shared resource, if we do not invest in protecting it, the implications of inaction will stretch farther than the exclusive economic zones of West Africa. Thus, the increased monitoring, control, and surveillance of Chinese distant water fishing companies are of global importance.