Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The EU Takes on Vidal Armadores

A while ago, I wrote about Greenpeace's efforts to pressure the Spanish government into ending its subsidies and other support for Vidal Armadores S. A., a Spanish fishing company blacklisted by CCAMLR for pirate fishing. It looks as though their efforts have paid off, as a recent story (use Google translator if you can't read Spanish) reports that the government plans to take legal action against the company. The European Union has also gotten involved, with Joe Borg, Commissioner of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs for the European Commission (executive branch of the EU) stating that he would take action against Spain if their authorities do not fulfill their EU obligations with respect to illegal fishing.

This is obviously good news, and I hope that it is just the start of the international community taking pirate fishing at least half as seriously as the recent Somali pirate attacks. Pirate fishing (or, somewhat less glamorously, Illegal, Unregulated, Unreported/IUU fishing) in the Southern Ocean and other areas flourishes because governments either look the other way or, in Spain's case, provide overt support to known violators. CCAMLR blacklists are exactly kept secret.

Given that fish stocks worldwide are severely depleted, it is appalling that we've heard more about Somali piracy from major media sources in the last month than we usually do about IUU fishing in a year. Somali piracy is a serious but relatively localized problem. Pirate fishing, on the other hand, has had a negative effect on global fish stocks, accelerates the collapse of the populations of high-value species, and deprives local fishers in developing countries of an important source income and nutrition. Furthermore, fish populations do not always recover after years of overfishing - inaction now only increases the likelihood that some species will be lost forever. So it is not an exaggeration to say that pirate fishing is a problem that affects everyone, everywhere.

For too long, the political will to take on these lawbreakers has been lacking. Few governments or regulatory bodies have taken truly bold action to preserve marine resources, whether by enacting appropriate regulations or enforcing existing ones. To be fair, it would be nearly impossible to patrol all the seas at all times for illegal fishers and illegal fishing practices, but in this and many other cases such effort is not necessary. Start by enforcing the law against blacklisted ships.

To make a dent in illegal fishing, the international community will have to undergo something of a revolution in values. Healthy marine ecosystems have a long-term value for humans that is far greater than the price that this year's toothfish catch will bring. When one considers that the health of a major resource is at stake, the lack of attention paid to illegal fishing is no less shocking than it would be if a government failed to arrest someone who was systematically burning down every house in a neighborhood. Those are your fish they're killing.

The EC Commissioner's announcement that he expects Spain to enforce the law or face legal action is promising, assuming he follows through. It's time to stop acting as if illegal fishing is a victimless or minor crime.

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