A High Seas Treaty without an end to illegal fishing by the Global North will threaten marginalised communities

Large trawler net fishing in high seas. Illegal fishing is done by large operations like the trawl fishery pictured.
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This article was updated at 8pm on Sunday 12 March to reflect an error. It previously mentioned Mauritius, when it should have referenced Mauritania. 

Industrialised nations’ illegal fishing makes a mockery of their recent pledges to ocean sustainability. Last week, global governments signed a historic treaty regarding the ‘high seas’ at UN negotiations in New York. This was the fifth round of talks on ‘the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity areas beyond national jurisdiction’ (BBNJ) treaty. It is designed to enable nations to collaborate on ocean protection for areas beyond their national waters.

The ‘high seas’ are oceans beyond the national jurisdiction of coastal states. Until now, nations could only designate conservation sites within their territorial and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). These are the stretches of ocean that generally extend 200 nautical miles (370km) from their coastlines.

The treaty, 10 years in the making, will enable world governments to jointly establish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) at sea. However, a coalition campaigning on behalf of artisanal fisheries in Africa – the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements (CFFA) – says that the new treaty alone does little to change industrialised nations’ extractive, exploitative plundering of marine life.

Governments around the world hailed the agreement as a vital step towards combating the ecological crisis in our seas. However, as they hashed out the details, a factory trawler from Europe was busy scooping up likely hundreds of tonnes of fish in West African waters.

Greenpeace Africa found the Russian factory ship Vasiliy Filippov fishing suspiciously in the territorial waters of Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and Mauritania on February 15. The vessel is owned by Icelandic fishing conglomerate Samherji. This 120m long trawler can carry an enormous 3,372 deadweight tonnage of fish. It continued to trawl the area while the UN held the BBNJ negotiations.

Illegal fishing decimates the small-scale coastal fisheries of Global South communities. Worse still, the coalition worries that the new treaty could in fact cause this type of illegal industrial fishing in these coastal waters to intensify.

Protected oceans at the expense of coastal communities

During the negotiations, the CFFA called on delegates to respect the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. Without centering them in decisions over the high seas, they say the treaty risks harm to these marginalised groups. These are communities who deeply depend on the ocean for food and income.

Read on...

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They argue that unless Global North nations make concerted efforts to reduce industrial fishing, the treaty could “come at the expense” of artisanal fishing communities. If Marine Protected Areas (MPA) are established in the high seas, but legal and illegal fishing levels stay the same, it could simply further shift these industrial fisheries into the territorial waters of lower-income nations. The CFFA explained the risk this poses to coastal communities in these countries:

Artisanal fishers contribute to the economies, health, culture, and well-being of coastal communities, especially in SIDS [Small Island and Developing States], and carry out their activities in areas closest to the coast. An increased fishing effort in EEZs [Exclusive Economic Zones] would have a negative impact on small-scale fishers (SSF), further endangering their access to marine resources.

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated plunder

It is the likes of the Vasiliy Filippov who will be first to the coastal spoils. The Vasiliy’s pillaging in West African waters is likely to be an example of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). Large trawlers overexploiting fish stocks do so with impunity in the high seas and the territorial waters of poorer nations. This is because the monitoring and enforcement in these areas is severely lacking. In these conditions, IUU fishing flourishes.

Meanwhile, both the ecological health of our seas and small fishing and coastal communities bear the cost of this ocean piracy. Corporations like Samherji will decimate the fisheries that these coastal communities depend on for their livelihoods and survival.

A report by the Financial Transparency Coalition (FTC) in 2022 estimated that IUU fishing is responsible for as much as 20% of the global catch. Companies operating IUU vessels concentrate nearly half of this effort on Africa alone, primarily in West African waters. As a result, IUU fishing is causing huge financial losses for African nations:

the continent is incurring an economic loss from Illicit Financial Flows alone linked to IUU fishing of up to USD $11.49 billion every year.

However, the financial losses are just one of the many problems IUU poses to coastal communities in the countries these vessels fish most heavily. The FTC report states that:

Today, western Africa’s coastal fishery resources are operating well beyond the brink of sustainable utilisation, in part because of IUU fishing. More than 50 percent of the fisheries resources in the stretch of coast ranging from Senegal to Nigeria alone have already been overfished.

Subsidised suffering

The illegal fishing in both the high seas and coastal territorial water causes a huge financial drain for Global South fisheries. Naturally, industrialised nations are subsidising these harmful operations.

While the ultimate owners of IUU are often obscured through convoluted networks of shell companies, there is some information available. Specifically, this information reveals the operators responsible. The report shows that they are often operated by corporations registered in global political powerhouses like China and the EU.

However, without huge financial support, these distant-water fisheries (DWF) could not exist. A 2018 study in the journal Science Advances found that 54% of high seas fishing would be unprofitable without these government subsidies.

In 2021, ocean campaign group Oceana commissioned a report on fisheries subsidies. It found that China provides the largest subsidies to its industrial DWF fleet. The report showed that in 2018, China subsidised these fleets to the sum of $5.9bn. Meanwhile, the EU provided $2bn to its DWF operators. This made it the third largest subsidiser of industrial fishing in the high seas and the waters of other nations.

It is these subsidies which are propping up harmful overfishing. This includes IUU fishing in both the high seas and territorial waters of Global South countries.

Slipping through the net

The High Seas Treaty alone will not go far enough to protect marine life and coastal communities. However, an agreement negotiated at a World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference in June last year could help.

The WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies aims to prohibit subsidies to IUU fishing operations. The WTO claims the agreement:

marks a major step forward for ocean sustainability by prohibiting harmful fisheries subsidies, which are a key factor in the widespread depletion of the world’s fish stocks.

So far, just two nations have ratified the agreement: Switzerland and Singapore. Moreover, holes in the agreement mean that even when ratified, much IUU fishing is still likely to slip through the net. Specifically, the agreement does not eliminate the use of ‘harmful’ subsidies or those that cause fleet ‘overcapacity’. In addition to this, enforcement relies on the subsidising nation itself to report the subsidies. Oceana said of these loopholes:

If country-level honesty and integrity was the solution to removing harmful fisheries subsidies, did we really require 20 years of negotiation to get here?

Whether this agreement can make a dent in illegal fishing and its impacts on small coastal fisheries and marine biodiversity therefore remains to be seen.

Undermining community rights

The CFFA recognises the important role that the new High Seas Treaty could play for restoring marine biodiversity. However, they called on countries negotiating the agreement to also consider the impacts the agreement will have on small-scale fishers. If it is implemented without the input of those coastal communities, the CFFA said it could undermine their rights:

While it is vital to protect the high seas from reckless exploitation, such as over-fishing of highly migratory tuna stocks or the push for deep sea mining, it is also important to ensure that the future instrument does not undermine the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC), including small-scale fishers.

A working High Seas Treaty could win the fight to address the ecological crisis in our oceans. However, it cannot do so alone. The industrialised nations responsible for IUU fishing will also need to put an end to the harmful subsidies funding this natural resource crime. Anything less, and the treaty’s promise to the “respect, promotion and consideration” of the rights of indigenous and local communities will be lip-service.

Featured image via Asc1733/Wikimedia, resized to 770×403, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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