Database Mightier than the Sword for Illegal Fishing

3 31, 2016

According to some critics, the New Zealand navy’s HMS Wellington should have boarded illegal fishing vessels in the Ross Sea last month with all guns blazing to forcibly restrain them from plundering the area’s toothfish stocks.

Not only is this an unfair criticism, but a simplistic response to the ongoing global issue of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The pen (or in more modern terms, the database) is often mightier than the sword in protecting natural resources.

Once a catch is on a vessel there is little that can be practically done, so the focus must be on measures to prevent further theft of protected fish. The gathering and sharing of data about these vessels and their activities is one key element of this.

Information empowers consumers to make better decisions about the provenance of their fish. It also helps countries comply with initiatives like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s port state measures, enabling them to better identify IUU-linked vessels who call at their ports, preventing them getting their catch into the supply chain.

Information achieves change. For example, the European Union (EU) only accepts stocks caught at sustainable levels and certified as legal by the exporting country. Last week the EU blacklisted Sri Lanka, banning imports of fish from the country to their region. A similar move against Belize last year resulted in that country making major changes to their treatment of illegal fishing.

Policing the high seas for IUU is extremely complicated, let alone the practical difficulties of trying to board an uncooperative vessel in rough seas. By gathering evidence of illegal fishing in the Ross Sea, and sharing that with Interpol and other organisations, the HMS Wellington made a useful contribution.

Aggressive activity on the high seas might satisfy people’s outrage in the short term, but it is the effective sharing of information that results in permanent improvements in the management of natural resources like fisheries.

Posted on January 27, 2015


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