More than ten percent of the world’s population makes their living from fisheries and aquaculture and at least half of mankind’s source of protein is from fish and seafood. This proportion in Asia is even higher.
National law and rules of intergovernmental regional fisheries management organisations (RFMO) regulate fisheries. Illegal fishing means fishing without a licence, using destructive practices or fishing in prohibited areas, to name a few. Unreported fishing stands for catches not reported to national or international authorities. Unregulated fishing usually refers to vessels operating in violation of national law or RFMO’s regulations.
IUU operators try to register their vessels in countries which they do not have a genuine connection with, or which lack strict supervision, like Cambodia. Illegal fishers usually change the flag they are travelling under to another country’s, which is called flag hopping.
Another practice to avoid regulations is to transfer their catch to another ship while on the sea, not in a port. At-sea transhipments are legitimate practices and not a subject of controls when a ship is at sea. It also makes laundering illegally caught fish clean. Illegal operators also use ports of convenience known for poor inspections. Unreported fishing leads to overfishing, which affects most of the Asian countries, especially Cambodia and the Philippines. Destructive fishing also has a huge and long-term effect on our ecosystem. The use of chemicals to poison fishes or dynamites to destroy their internal organs also damages reefs and natural habitats. Bottom trawling and ghost fishing are also illegal, yet still widely used in Asia. The Spratley and Paracel Islands are highly threatened by these, not to mention issues such as reef building and the claiming sovereignty by more than one Asian nation.
One of the many reasons behind the unsuccessful fight against IUU is the lack of national capability. Some of the countries have huge territorial waters to patrol. Think about Indonesia which has less than 100 coastguard vessels, yet it has 6 million km² to monitor, which is double the size of the Mediterranean Sea. The previously mentioned lack of clearly defined maritime borders and corruption are also among the reasons IUU fishing is a serious issue. An illegal fishing vessel was detained in Indonesia in April, which turned out to be carrying a 30 km long gillnet. Every now and then there are news regarding arrests of illegal fishermen, but it is only a drop in the sea.
The Asia Foundation in cooperation with the USA, China and Thailand held an ASEAN Regional Forum in Bangkok in March 2018. The participants agreed that an inclusive and synchronised legal framework is needed to regulate fisheries policies in the region. Regional powers should share their best practices and harmonise their plans into a common regional practice. Most of the crimes committed in the fishing industry are transnational, therefore joint monitoring, surveillance and control is crucial to fight effectively against criminals. Information-sharing between agencies and authorities will further improve sustainable fisheries management. Coordinated sea-farming can lead to sustainable ecosystems. Introducing small-scale fishery practices to local communities would mean a stable and long-term livelihood. The participants agreed that exploring further options for collaboration at national and local level will contribute to identifying goals and next steps for sustainable fisheries management.