Oceana Europe

This month’s first-ever United Nations Oceans Conference and the upcoming Our Ocean meeting to be hosted by the EU, put robust governance of our oceans and sustainable use of marine resources to the forefront as perhaps never before. With this in mind, the world’s largest market for seafood, the EU, must ensure the most ambitious reform of rules governing its large external fishing fleet.

Author: Vanya Vulperhorst, Oceana

Negotiations between EU bodies on a new regulation to govern the activities of EU fishing vessels operating outside of Union waters are ongoing. This long distance or “external” fishing fleet regulation is a key measure implementing the EU’s international commitments as flag State under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

This game-changing international treaty, which is 35 years old this year, provides the legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources, and most relevantly here defines the rights and responsibilities of states and their activities at sea.

Under the current EU external fleet regulation (in place since 2008), depending on where in the world the fishing takes place, and under what type of access agreement, vessel operators are subject to completely different requirements and levels of monitoring. These loopholes allow EU vessels to potentially evade EU standards and laws while benefiting from public funds.

Not only does this create unfair competition among operators, but it also prevents EU and national authorities from ensuring that EU vessels are fishing legally and sustainably. Member states are responsible for ensuring that the activities of the vessels recorded in their registers are legal and sustainable while the European Commission has a duty to check that member states fulfill their obligations in this domain.

In order to close existing loopholes, Oceana together with its partners* are calling on Member States to support two crucial measures in the final compromise.

First, the European Commission should be given the power to intervene and withdraw a fishing authorisation where an EU Member State fails to fulfill its duties as flag State. This is not the case under the current system. The findings of a recent analysis raised concerns as to the level of scrutiny afforded by some Member States over the historical activities of vessels wishing to register (or re-register) to their flags and obtain access to taxpayer-funded fisheries agreements (called Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements or SFPAs). In some cases, Member States granted almost immediate authorisation to fish under SFPAs, even for vessels returning from countries known to be failing in their efforts to end illegal fishing. This provided insufficient assurance of the future compliance of those vessels with both EU and international law, such as UNCLOS.

Second, the future external fleet regulation should include a public database of information on external fishing authorisations. While the EU spends 140 million Euros every year to gain access to fish resources in the waters of non-EU countries through SFPAs, basic information on the vessels fishing under these agreements, and the species targeted, has never been disclosed. Other types of agreements are even more opaque, which has resulted in a lack of accountability of the fishing activities of the entire EU external fleet and has seriously undermined effective monitoring and control.

The proposed reform would see the creation of a public database with information on each vessel’s name, flag and the nature of its fishing authorisation. The European Parliament strengthened the proposal by suggesting to add crucial information on vessel beneficial ownership.

Such a public database would ensure that the EU fishing fleet complies with global transparency standards, with information on beneficial ownership contributing, in particular, to financial transparency and the fight against corruption and illegal fishing. Indeed, some Member Sates, such as the UK, Denmark, France, The Netherlands and Slovenia, have already set up, or are currently setting up, public databases.

The EU is the largest market for seafood products in the world. This demand is met, in part, by the catches of EU vessels fishing outside of EU waters, which represent 28% of total EU catches. Much of the EU’s external fishing activities occur in the waters of developing coastal States, in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and off the coast of West and Central Africa. Given the scale and reach of its fishing fleet, the EU has a clear responsibility to ensure the robust and effective regulation of these activities.

This reform is a vital opportunity for the EU to ensure its fishing activities are transparent, accountable and sustainable, and to secure EU leadership in matters of global fisheries governance and the fight against illegal fishing. An ambitious outcome would have a significant impact on the long-term conservation and management of global fisheries, as well as on developing coastal States, which heavily rely on ocean resources for both food and income.

2017 is a crucial year for ocean governance, and a timely opportunity for the EU to take action.

Oceana and its partners call on the EU, and especially on the Member States, to support the key measures outlined above and to agree on an ambitious future external fishing fleet regulation without further delay.

*Oceana is working in a coalition of non-governmental organisations to secure the harmonised and effective implementation of the European Union’s Regulation to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

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