Already today, about 60% of the world’s fish stocks are fished to their capacity limits. 34% of fish stocks are already overfished, which means that more fish are being taken from these fish stocks than can grow back. An important question is therefore how long our seas will continue to allow profitable fishing at all. This question is certainly not only asked by fishing companies, but also by many consumers.
The “Living Blue Planet Report” by the environmental organization WWF (World Wide Fund For Nature) shows that the population numbers of marine mammals, seabirds, reptiles and fish have halved within the last 40 years. This decline in biodiversity will be accompanied by a drastic change in the habitability of Earth. The ocean ecosystem is a major contributor to our living conditions and must be treated by us in a sustainable manner, underpinned by the 14th United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal. So if the oceans are almost fished out, the consequences will not only be higher prices for marine animals.
The oceans absorb, among other things, a large part of the released CO2. Fish are part of this bond, because they eat the microorganisms that absorb CO2. The excreta of the fish settle on the seabed and thus the CO2 is also “stored” at the bottom of the oceans. Fisheries thus directly influence climate change and it is therefore all the more important to know where and how the fish was caught.
One of the reasons for the overfishing of the seas is IUU fishing (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing). Up to 26 million tonnes of fish are caught illegally each year and, according to the WWF, it is the sixth most profitable form of transnational crime.
How is it controlled?
The illegal extraction of fish stocks not only threatens the oceans, but also creates a lack of transparency in the fish supply chain. This could have implications not only for the end consumer (for whom the origin of the fish is becoming increasingly important), but also specifically for the industry. Should a processor or trader bring the illegal fish into circulation knowing that it is an illegal catch, this can quickly lead to justified accusations of greenwashing and thus also to reputational damage.
Many ports have established controls in order to detect illegal fishing and to ensure a transparent supply chain. In the European Union (EU), the controls have also been enshrined in law with the Fisheries Control Regulation, which has been in force since 2010. During these controls, the fishing licence, the fishing permit, the catch certificate and the electronic logbook are checked. These documents make it possible to trace which fish was caught where and how. The fishing licence shows who is authorised to operate the vessel and under which flag the vessel sails. This also determines which legal regulation the vessel is subject to.
The fishing method also makes a significant difference in most cases, as bottom trawling, for example, is one of the most damaging methods and is not permitted in every area. The E U, for example, has established a legal ban on bottom trawling from a sea depth of 800 m (approximately 2625 feet) (up to 200 nautical miles from the coast). Producers who use sustainable fishing methods, such as angling, hardly get any fish and cannot compete with the “cheap prices” of trawlers. In addition, bottom trawling destroys the seabed, which absorbs most of the CO2. This results in the release of the same amount of CO2 as is attributed to air traffic per year.
Inspections of ports often incomplete
If a vessel lacks any of this information or if there are discrepancies, it may not discharge the cargo in the port concerned. The state in which the fish is to be landed has the option of requesting satellite-based data in the event of discrepancies in the documents. This data provides information on where the vessel has fished and so it can be checked whether it was authorised to fish in this area. Cooperation between countries also helps to detect and prosecute illegal fishing. Controls are more widespread in developed countries than in developing countries, for example. However, there are still ports at EU level which serve as loopholes for illegal fishermen. In the course of its research, Greenpeace has located the port of Gran Canaria – Port of Las Palmas for example.
In addition to such circumvention possibilities, however, the basic requirements for controls are also a problem. In order to be able to carry out controls, it is not only necessary to have sufficient financial resources, but also far-reaching sanctions. Illegal fishermen also use bribes to escape punishment. Control in the ports would also have to be extensive and involve cooperation with all other ports. For this reason, the United States and the EU have signed an agreement to this effect.
Transshipment as the biggest loophole
In order to circumvent controls in the ports, many illegal fishermen use, among other things, the so-called transshipment. With this method, fishing vessels load their catch onto a reefer ship on the high seas and can thus completely avoid the approach to a port. These reefer vessels also supply the fleets with fuel and food for the crew. Because of this exchange, fishing boats can remain on the high seas for several months without ever being inspected. Transshipment is considered probably the biggest loophole in the supply chain in this context. Reefer vessels usually mix the legal and illegal catches, allowing fishermen to disguise their illegal removals. Furthermore, the reefers do not go to the nearest port, but usually to the least controlled ports.
Artificial intelligence and satellite technology track down illegal fishing
As a solution to this problem, software systems with the aid of artificial intelligence (AI) could provide a remedy. One provider of such a system is, for example, the British company Windward. Windward’s behavior-based model is designed to use AI and expertise not only to monitor fisheries, but also to enable criminal and political investigations. Based on these systems, conspicuous movements of fleets could be detected and penalized for violations. For example, the systems can identify unusually long lay times of vessels that are close to each other. Such an arrangement often indicates a transhipment of catches, i.e. the controversial transshipment.
In 2012 WWF also introduced a new satellite-based programme to eliminate IUU fishing. Data can be collected from the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which is already installed in most vessels. The AIS provides data to identify the vessel. The name, size, position and other important details of the ships are transmitted. Based on this data, it is possible to track which routes the vessels are taking and where exactly they are fishing. AIS is mandatory in the EU for all fishing boats over 24 metres (approximately 79 feet) in length. Worldwide, the measurement of 30 meters ( approximately 98 feet) is considered mandatory for the AIS.
“AIS is an incorruptible data provider and offers itself as an international standard for transparent fisheries,” explains Alfred Schumm (Head of WWF’s Global Fisheries Programme)
According to the WWF, a step in the right direction would also be an equipment obligation for smaller fishing vessels.
Action against illegal fishing essential for ecosystem
Illegal practices such as transshipment have a massive impact on the supply chain of fish products. On the one hand, consumers are unable to trace exactly where the fish comes from and, above all, whether it comes from sustainable farming. On the other hand, it would also be a relief for downstream processes if traders, in particular, knew exactly where their sourced fish came from. After all, their reputation in particular depends on such an unclear supply chain.
Already one fifth of fishing yields are obtained through IUU fishing. Curbing this illegal network not only has an impact on the marine ecosystem, but is also considered one of the greatest threats to the coastal states of West Africa in particular, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). The areas off the coast of West Africa have a particularly high biodiversity. Biodiversity, fish as a source of food and cash income in the fishing industry are all severely threatened by illegal removals. According to the EFJ, 37% of all catches off the coasts of West Africa are illegal and unsustainable. This deplorable state of affairs means that local fishermen do not have enough revenue to feed themselves and sell the fish. According to the Federal Agency for Civic Education (BPB)[german], piracy is a growing alternative for young men in Africa. A transparent supply chain could also provide information here in order to avoid buying fish caught in this area.
In order to sustainably protect our ecosystem and ensure global security, it would be an essential course of action to pursue and curb IUU fishing. A transparent supply chain could also help to involve consumers in this responsibility.