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An Interview with Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation
Fighting Pirate Fishing
"Humanity has become a super-predator and is now in the process of degrading the life support systems that sustain us all."
— Steve Trent
Pirate fishing – also known as illegal, unreported and undocumented (IUU) fishing - is a very serious issue plaguing the oceans and threatening livelihoods on a global scale. Use of banned types of fishing gear, fishing in restricted areas or inside national boundaries without permission, and misreporting of catches are all considered IUU fishing. UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation’s (EJF) Save the Sea campaign is working to end the global environmental, social and economic problems and impacts of illegal pirate fishing and bycatch. SeaWeb spoke with EJF’s Director, Steve Trent, about this issue and what they are doing to turn the tide.
SeaWeb: How did you first become interested in ocean conservation and stopping illegal fishing?
Steve Trent: It’s hard not to be interested in ocean conservation: seas and oceans cover more than 70% of our planet; contain a vast diversity of life amounting to around 95% in the biosphere; soak up around one quarter of the carbon dioxide we produce each year and generate around half of our oxygen. The incredible beauty and richness of life in our oceans is a constant source of wonder and fascination, compelling in its complexity and depth.
But I have also seen again and again, just how important the richness of life in our oceans is as a vital resource for people - especially the poorest – and with this how we are allowing a once seemingly inexhaustible supply of fish to be devastated. Humanity has become a super-predator and is now in the process of degrading the life support systems that sustain us all. For species such as sharks, literal living dinosaurs, present as top predators for around 400 million years it seems astonishing that within just one generation we may wipe most of them out. And it is the pirate fishing operators that are perhaps most guilty of undermining attempts to build sustainability, to reduce the negative impacts of our fishing operations. We need to stop to them.
SW: What is pirate fishing?
ST: ‘Pirate’ fishing, also known as Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, involves unscrupulous operators circumventing national and international fishing laws. Illegal activities include fishing in inshore areas reserved for local fishermen, using banned fishing gears, destroying local fishermen’s equipment, targeting banned species and covertly transferring or ‘transshipping’ fish to other vessels at sea. Pirate fishing vessels often travel thousands of miles to target developing countries that have little capacity to monitor and control their waters and where fishing is a vital source of food security and employment. As well as benefiting from weak surveillance, pirate fishing vessels often fly the flags of countries that are either unwilling or unable to regulate their activities. The use of these so-called ‘Flags of Convenience’ (FoCs) or ‘Flags of Non-Compliance’ makes it very difficult to prosecute offending vessels for their activities and to deter pirate fishing.
SW: Why is pirate fishing a problem for ocean conservation?
ST: In addition to the 92 million tonnes of fish that is caught from the world’s oceans each year, it is estimated that IUU fishing accounts for a further 11-28 million tonnes of fish, with economic losses to coastal countries estimated at between $10 and $23.5 billion USD. A significant proportion of these losses are the result of fish being ‘stolen’ by pirate fishing operators. Pirate fishing operators frequently fish in inshore areas with illegal fishing gears, targeting juvenile fish and devastating the marine environment. They are notorious for fishing with high levels of bycatch - the accidental capture of species including shark, turtles, sea snakes and other endangered wildlife. With the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisations (UNFAO) estimating that 80 per cent of fish stocks are fully exploited, over exploited or depleted and scientists predicting the collapse of many commercial fish stocks by 2048, it is essential that new and additional actions are taken to stop pirate fishing operations.
SW: What specific actions is the Environmental Justice Foundation taking to reduce pirate fishing?
ST: The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) runs a community surveillance project in West Africa, the area with the highest levels of pirate fishing in the world. EJF’s boat, based in southern Sierra Leone, responds to calls from coastal fishing communities that report industrial vessels operating illegally in inshore areas, damaging the marine environment and destroying local fishermen’s equipment. EJF’s local staff take photos and record GPS coordinates of the vessels, document their breaches of fisheries laws and, where possible, identify the companies that own them. The evidence gathered by EJF is provided to the Sierra Leone government and the European Commission. Much of the fish caught illegally in West Africa enters the highly lucrative European market, and since the European Union IUU regulation came into force on 1st January 2010, EJF’s evidence can stop illegally caught fish from finding its way on to our fish counters and into our restaurants. In March 2011, EJF investigations led to the seizure of £4 million pounds worth ($6.5 million USD) of fish in the Spanish port of Las Palmas. An international investigation into the vessels that caught the fish is ongoing.
In conjunction with the community surveillance project, EJF is working with local partners in Sierra Leone and Liberia to support the development of Marine Protected Areas. This 5-year EU funded project involves supporting communities and government agencies to work together to sustainably manage fisheries resources as well as building transboundary collaboration to ensure that the problems of pirate fishing and overfishing are not shifted to neighboring countries. Due to the mobile nature of fishing fleets, transboundary cooperation on monitoring, control and surveillance is absolutely crucial in solving this issue.
In addition to work on the ground in West Africa, EJF is campaigning internationally for improved transparency in marine fisheries. In particular, EJF is campaigning for a comprehensive Global Record of fishing vessels. A Global Record would allow authorities to keep track of vessels’ name and flag changes as well as their histories – in particular any convictions they have for IUU fishing. The Global Record would make it easier to target the real owners of pirate vessels, whose identities are frequently hidden by shell-companies in ‘flag of convenience’ countries. In addition, a Global Record would help governments and other fisheries managers make effective decisions by providing a much clearer picture of the size and capacity of each country’s fishing fleet as well as where they are operating.
As part of its campaigning for improved transparency in marine fisheries, EJF is also working towards an end to the exploitation of FoCs, where fishing vessels flag to‘open registries’ operated by countries that lacks the capacity or will to enforce their international fisheries management obligations. EJF worked closely with the government of Sierra Leone on closing their FoC registry and supports ongoing work at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to develop binding standards for the flag states of fishing vessels.
SW: What are the conditions like on illegal fishing boats?
ST: The conditions on board illegal fishing vessels are often horrendous. A five-year investigation by EJF in West Africa documented conditions akin to slavery on board vessels that export their catches to the EU.
Human rights abuses documented during the investigation included: incarceration of crew members, violence, withholding of pay, confiscation of documents, confinement on board for months or even years, and a lack of clean water.
Hygiene standards are often also extremely poor, with fish stored in filthy conditions and freezing equipment often inadequate.
SW: What is the impact of illegal fishing on food security? How can catching more fish reduce food security if it increases the amount of protein available?
ST: Fish is vital to food security, and is the main source of protein for an estimated one billion people. Pirate fishing operations often steal fish from people who need it most and supply it to people who need it the least. In Sierra Leone, 46 per cent of the population is undernourished and fish provides as much as 65 per cent of animal protein consumed. Sierra Leone and other developing countries simply cannot afford to lose vital protein to pirate fishing operators.
As well as reducing the amount of fish available for local communities and destroying the marine environment, pirate fishing vessels frequently destroy the fishing nets of local fishermen, taking away their means of earning a livelihood and of feeding their communities.
Steve has led environmental and human-rights campaigns for over 20 years and is a founding director of both the Environmental Justice Foundation (www.ejfoundation.org) and WildAid (www.wildaidUK.org). He has conducted research, advocacy and investigations in over 45 countries and secured legislative and regulatory changes to protect the environment at local, national and international levels.