Two years ago, the European Commission warned Vietnam for not fulfilling its international obligations on tackling illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Two years on, the country has made clear it will no longer tolerate rogue actors that threaten fish stocks.
Vietnamese officials have been making preparations for the second review of nation’s implementation of the European Commission’s (EC) recommendations to curtail illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The inspection team from the EC’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries began the nine-day inspection on Tuesday, November 5, and will report the outcomes to the deputy prime minister on tomorrow, on November 14.
The inspection comes over two years since the EC awarded Vietnam a ‘yellow card’ warning over its failure to bring IUU fishing under control.
IUU fishing was damaging regional ecosystems and putting a strain on diplomatic relations
IUU fishing puts an immense strain on local fisheries. The Asia Foundation estimates that 64% of the regions fisheries are now facing a medium to high level threat of collapse. Illegal and unreported fishing is a major contributor to these threats. Fishermen in the region frequently use illegal methods, such as poison fishing and blast fishing with dynamite, to increase their catch.
More than half of Southeast Asia’s inhabitants rely on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods. If IUU fishing is left unchecked, there is less fish for legitimate fishermen to catch.
There is also a diplomatic dimension to unchecked IUU fishing. Illegal fishing activities have long been a source of contention in regional disputes and flare-ups between ASEAN nations. Most recently, in May, the deputy secretary-general of the Malaysian Foreign Ministry, Raja Nushirwan Zainal Abidin, complained to the Vietnamese ambassador in Kuala Lumpur about the illegal movement of Vietnamese vessels in Malaysian waters. Malaysia has reportedly detained 748 IUU Vietnamese fishing vessels since 2006.
It is in Vietnam’s interest to clampdown on IUU fishing
Aside from the impact of IUU fishing on local fisheries and livelihoods, it is in Vietnam’s economic interests to crack down on illegal and unreported fishing activities. Vietnam is hoping to increase its seafood exports by 19.5% for 2019. With the stigma of a yellow card attached to its fishing industries, the nation may find its growth ambitions under threat.
Last year Vietnamese shrimp exports to the EU, one of its major trading partners, dropped. Projections look better for 2019, helped in no small part by the negotiation of the EU-Vietnam free trade agreement, but to fully capitalize on the seafood export opportunities, Vietnam will need to show it has made inroads to curb IUU fishing.
The Vietnamese government has made significant improvements in key areas
The EC made Vietnam’s removal from its pre-identification list conditional on improvements in four key areas. Following an inspection in June 2018, it called on the Vietnamese government to strengthen legislation, install monitoring systems on fishing vessels, improve legislation enforcement, and trace the origin of domestic aquatic products.
Since the warning two years ago, the Vietnamese government has taken steps to implement all of the EC’s recommendations. Just weeks after the warning the government amended its Law on Fisheries. The amendments codified the EC’s recommendations into law.
To guide localities on implementation, the government issued two follow up degrees. The Prime Minister also issued a decision and the Ministry for Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) issued eight circulars.
As part of the legislation, all localities now have to be equipped with monitoring systems to supervise and check fishing vessel operations. 31,500 vessels have been equipped with journey monitoring systems and the MARD has sent out inspection teams to work closely with localities to oversee compliance and guide implementation processes.
27 out of the country’s 28 coastal provinces have established internal offices dedicated to controlling and regulating fishing operations. They have also expressed their support for the establishment of ASEAN’s IUU fishing combat network which receives funding from the European Union.
The management boards of fishing ports have also been assigned the responsibility of tracing the origins of seafood and catch.
Punitive mechanisms for violators provide a strong platform moving forward
While not all of the initiatives have begun yielding results, the establishment of a set of national expectations and a zero-tolerance approach to violators has set a strong platform to build on.
Violators face strict fines for non-compliance with the policy implementations. The owners of violating vessels face fines of almost seven billion VND (US$300,000), and in some cases, have had their licenses revoked. The government has also published lists of offenders to shame vessel owners into compliance.
Law enforcement agencies are patrolling waterways and marine authorities have increased in-port checks to ensure every vessel is operating in line with the new requirements.
The Vietnamese government has begun to see improvements. Since the beginning of 2018, no Vietnamese ships have been sighted fishing illegally in the Pacific. However, there are still areas tipped for improvement.
Currently, only 30%-40% of vessels are turning on their tracking systems, undermining governmental efforts to monitor vessel activity. Yet, even despite this uninspiring figure, there are ample signs that localities are moving in the right direction. Individual provinces remain committed to closing tracking loopholes. Quang Tri Province, for example, is currently working on installing MOVIMAR, a satellite tracking technology, in all ships over 15 metres in length. It is expected to complete the initiative next year.
The Vietnamese government has made its desire to put an end to IUU fishing clear. In addition to the EC’s recommendations, it has signed onto international agreements dedicated to protecting regional fish stocks and promoting more sustainable fishing practices. While there is no miracle solution, the last two years have seen the nation take the first steps on the road towards an industry overhaul, one that will have extensive environmental, economic and diplomatic benefits.