Countries took a major step forward in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing today as they endorsed a set of international guidelines that will hold states more accountable for the activities of fishing vessels flying their flags.
The FAO Voluntary Guidelines for Flag State Performance spell out a range of actions that countries can take to ensure that vessels registered under their flags do not conduct IUU fishing, one of the greatest threats to sustainable fisheries and related livelihoods.
Although the guidelines are voluntary, their endorsement by members of the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI), currently meeting in Rome, is a public signal by countries of their intent to adhere to a shared set of standards for flag state performance. Worked out over several years of negotiations, the guidelines now enjoy broad levels of international buy-in and support.
Precise numbers are hard to come by, but it is believed that IUU fishing has escalated over the past 20 years, especially in the high seas, and is now estimated to amount to 11-26 million tonnes of fish harvested illicitly each year, worth between $10 and $23 billion.
“Today’s decision represents a massive breakthrough in combating IUU fishing, which not only puts marine ecosystems at risk but undermines any effort undertaken at the national, regional or international level to manage fisheries in a sustainable manner,” said Árni M. Mathiesen, FAO Assistant Director-General for Fisheries and Aquaculture.
“Taken together with FAO’s 2009 Agreement on Port State Measures, which works to prevent entry into ports by IUU fishing vessels and therefore block the flow of IUU-caught fish into national and international markets, these guidelines will provide a potent tool to combat IUU fishing in the coming decades,” he added.
An end to flag hopping
A flag state refers to any country – whether coastal or landlocked – that registers a fishing vessel and authorizes it to fly its flag.
Flag states are already required to maintain a record of their registered vessels together with information on their authorization to fish, such as the species they may fish for and the type of gear they may use.
However, many fishing vessels engaged in illegal activities circumvent such control measures by 'flag hopping' – repeatedly registering with new flag States to dodge detection, which undermines anti-IUU efforts.
The Voluntary Guidelines aim to crack down on this practice, among other things, by promoting greater cooperation and information exchange between countries, so that flag states are in a position to refuse to register vessels that have previously been reported for IUU fishing, or that are already registered with another flag state.
The guidelines also provide recommendations on how countries could encourage compliance and take action against non-compliance by vessels, as well as on how to enhance international cooperation to assist developing countries to fulfill their flag state responsibilities.
The guidelines draw on existing international maritime law as well as international instruments such as the 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement, 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries,the 2001 FAO International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate IUU fishing.
Committee on Fisheries
COFI is the only global inter-governmental forum except for the UN General Assembly where international fisheries and aquaculture problems and issues are periodically examined and where recommendations for action by governments, regional fishery bodies, NGOs, fish workers, FAO and the international community are made.
Member countries are meeting for the 31st session of COFI at FAO headquarters in Rome until the end of the week.