Fewer Fish Are Wasted, but More Are Illegally Caught

ROME, Italy, September 14, 2004 (ENS) - Millions of tons fewer fish are being wasted each year according to a new analysis of global data for the last decade from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. But at the same time, the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is growing in scope and intensity, recent studies by the agency reveal. 

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) finds that fishers are getting better at catching target species, and fish that in the past would have been thrown away as trash are today increasingly being kept on-board and used. 

The data show that on average some 7.3 million metric tons of fish are being thrown back to sea unused each year - a decrease of about 12 million tons from the FAO's previous estimate. 

In 1996 the UN agency estimated that average annual global fish discards were around 20 million tons. 

In many places fish production has reached maximum sustainable levels, and for some fisheries discard levels and analysis of fish catch compositions can offer insights into the well-being of remaining stocks. 

"In some fisheries, countries have implemented measures that aim at reducing incidental by-catch, the FAO’s Fisheries Department said today. "These include initiatives that improve fishing selectivity to limit catches to only desired species as well as the increased use of by-catch excluder devices or anti-discard regulations." 

With fewer fish being wasted and being used instead, one could expect the overall level of fish landings to have increased - but this has not happened. In general, global fish landings have been stable in recent years, FAO figures show. 

The agency still does not know whether the increased use of previously discarded fish is masking a decline in captures of conventional fish stocks. Natural fluctuations in fish abundance due to climate conditions and natural lifecycles of fish populations is still unknown as well. 

On the other hand great deal is known about the methods of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing - operating without licences, targeting and catching prohibited species, using outlawed types of gear, disregarding catch quotas, or non-reporting and underreporting of species and catch weights. 

"Taken together, the impacts of these activities add up," says Ichiro Nomura, FAO Assistant Director-General for Fisheries. "All responsible countries must work together to put an end to IUU fishing." 

In some places, catches of commercially valuable fish species may be surpassing permitted levels by over 300 percent due to IUU fishing, according to reports made to the FAO by regional fisheries bodies. 

"Globally, IUU fishing is seriously undermining international efforts to conserve and manage fish stocks in a sustainable manner," Nomura said. 

In the face of the problem, an increasing number of regional fisheries bodies - intergovernmental organizations established by regional blocs of countries to jointly oversee management of shared fisheries - are adopting a wide range of measures to crack down on IUU fishing.

At the national level, individual governments are working to confront the issue as well. 

Nonetheless, many countries are still struggling not only with making sure that ships flying their flags behave responsibly overseas, but also with stamping out IUU fishing in their own national waters. 

The FAO convened a meeting of its members early in September to brainstorm ways countries can do more together to crack down on IUU fishing. 

During the meeting, held August 31 through September 2 at FAO's Rome headquarters, countries fleshed out a model scheme that could be used flexibly by countries or regional fisheries bodies to implement "port state measures," measures that make it harder for vessels to offload or tranship illegally caught fish. 

"The principles amount to a checklist of best practices in terms of anti-IUU fishing port state controls," says David Doulman, an FAO Senior Fisheries Officer and an expert on IUU fishing. They can help countries "improve national and international control regimes aimed at discouraging IUU fishing," he says. 

According to the guidelines, fishing boats and fish processing vessels wishing to land in a port should be required to first radio in ahead of time and request permission to dock, providing their vessel identification information as well as details about their cargo and recent fishing activities. 

This would allow authorities to simply turn away any ships previously reported as involved in IUU fishing, unless the vessel was experiencing stress and needs to come into port for safety reasons. 

And all fishing vessels granted port access could be subject to random inspection. If inspections turn up evidence that a ship had engaged in IUU fishing, it would be denied permission to offload its cargo. Confirmed cases could result in blacklisting and, potentially, legal action. 

"Under this proposed model scheme, vessels that fish responsibly, whose flag countries are keeping an eye on the operations of their fishing fleets in accordance with international law and standards would have no problems," says Doulman. 

"The idea is to simply put in place some very basic criteria for examination - for example, are a boat's papers in order? does it have prescribed gear installed? - that can help red flag cases where a boat may have fished illegally." 

At the meeting, the FAO was requested to establish training programs in developing countries aimed at helping them get their port inspection programmes off the ground. 

The FAO was asked to help countries to incorporate stronger port state controls into their national laws. 

The UN agency is also expected to work with groups of countries to help them draft multilateral agreements establishing common standards for port state controls in their regions. 

With all countries in a given region agreeing on common requirements that vessels should meet before entering port, and to sharing the information they accumulate on vessels working in the region, efforts to combat illegal and unscrupulous fishing would get a major boost, Doulman believes 

Finally, the FAO was asked to create a comprehensive database of port state measures currently in use around the world, which countries can use when drafting their own national policies and regulations. 

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