News insight: Tracing Somalia illegal fishing

By Girija Shettar

Sustainable fishing initiative Secure Fisheries claims that illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing “is the biggest cause for concern” with regard to Somalia’s fishing industry – and if not stopped will prompt a revival of piracy.

The US-based NGO’s Securing Somali Fisheries report, released last week, says it offers the “first comprehensive review and measurement of foreign fishing in Somali waters”.

Illegal fishing, and its links to piracy, is not new, but the report’s lead author, Dr Sarah Glaser, believes that a raft of initiatives launched last year by the Somalian government to protect and develop Somali fisheries suggests this is an important time for the industry.

Speaking to IHS Maritime, Glaser said, “These initiatives, as well as the decline in piracy, all make it a key moment for capturing international attention around this issue.”

Glaser added that “all foreign fishing in Somali waters is either illegal, unregulated, or unreported [IUU]” and that if it is not “immediately limited, regulated, reported, and licensed”, the local fishing industry will be disastrously undermined.

The report estimates the level of IUU fishing and the catch attributable to it was “over 132,000 tonnes of marine life … nearly three times the amount caught by Somali artisanal and subsistence fishers” in 2013 (the latest year with available data). The “value of the foreign catch” is estimated at USD306 million, compared with the Somali catch, valued at USD58 million.

John Steed, Secure Fisheries’ regional manager for the Horn of Africa, warned that illegal fishing off the coast of Somalia is “back to where it was” when armed robbery and piracy first appeared in the region.

“There is a real danger of the whole piracy cycle starting all over,” he said in a statement, citing the pirating of two Iranian fishing vessels in March this year. One vessel and its crew escaped after around five months, while the other, Siraj, is still being held captive.

The report makes 19 recommendations to address the problem in Somalia, including improved data-sharing between foreign navies, fishing vessels, and Somali officials, as well as between international and regional actors.

“One thing we hear over and over from [Somali] government officials and fishers on the ground is that they wish there would be more co-operation from those naval vessels in terms of information sharing,” Glaser said.

As one of the biggest fish importers in the world, the EU collects data on illegal fishing to regulate its business with countries that are breaking the law. Information about IUU fishing in the Somali region is collected under the mandate of the EU’s counterpiracy initiative, Operation ‘Atalanta’.

EU NAVFOR spokesperson Commander Jacqueline Sherriff told IHS Maritime that EU Naval Force warships and maritime patrol aircraft are allowed to monitor fishing activity in the area of operations during their counterpiracy patrols. Data such as name, call sign, and/or position is collected on any vessel that appears to be actively fishing and sent to the EC Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs & Fisheries (DG MARE).

She said DG MARE conducts any investigation deemed necessary relating to IUU fishing and, as the sole body authorised to do so, passes that information to the relevant regional fisheries management organisation, which in the case of Somalia is the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission.

“It should be stressed that international monitoring of fishing is legally distinct from fisheries protection, enforcement, or control, in which the Somali authorities retain exclusive jurisdiction,” Sherriff said.

Citing data gathered by EU NAVFOR/DG MARE, Glaser said, “The first thing we would be calling for is for a sharing of that information.”

DG MARE told IHS Maritime that its data is “general” and “not conclusive and not showing significant evidence on illegal fishing”; however, the ministry conceded that its experts “are still working with Operation ‘Atalanta’ to complete this data but are experiencing some information transmission problems that most likely will be fixed soon.

“Once our experts have pertinent and conclusive information on illegal fishing activities and agreed internally on the way that this data will be managed and disclosed, they will extend their efforts to closely work and collaborate with relevant stakeholders,” according to DG MARE.

The data should “go directly to Somalis”, said Glaser, who added that if Secure Fisheries got the information that is what would happen. She clarified that the NGO is working with all three areas of Somalia: south-central Somalia, Somaliland, and Puntland.

Glaser was keen to stress the potential of Somalia’s fish and fish-related products export market.

“Unfortunately this is often overlooked,” she said.

The country would need to claw back the 130,000 tonnes currently being snatched up by foreign fishing vessels, to make up a total of about 135,000 to 139,000 tonnes.

But it would simultaneously need to save its fish stocks. The NGO estimates that 44% of Somali fish stocks are fished unsustainably. The report lists a significant number of Somali fish stocks that are overfished, putting Somali fishers at risk of declining catches and profits if the trend is not curtailed.

Fishing licenses are another good potential source of revenue – estimated at USD17 million – but the number of licenses sold would need to be carefully regulated. For this, Glaser said a “good scientific understanding of fish stocks size” is required and depends on increased data collection.

She also stressed the need for political co-operation. “The regions and states must work together to calculate how much to licence from all Somali waters combined for many species, so they must have constructive dialogue and co-operate,” she said, adding that media reports about corruption in the selling of licenses would “be a concern going forward”.

For a full revival of the country’s fishing industry, port and logistics development and infrastructure is obviously needed.

From roads for freezer trucks to travel on to reach major cities to deepening of the ports that cannot currently handle the larger ships; cranes would be needed as well as cold stores, and sanitary processing facilities, which are, said Glaser, relatively inexpensive to obtain but would add value to the fishery business.

“Places [are needed] where fish can be descaled, gutted, beheaded, and processed [as this] adds value. But [Somali ports] lack a lot of the sanitary conditions that would allow international export standards for fish being processed at a port,” Glaser said.

Beyond Somalia, IUU is a worldwide problem. Poor fisheries management over the years and a lack of collaboration between nation and flag states is responsible, said Alex Gray, director of project management, IHS Maritime & Trade.

“More than 1 billion people are reliant on fish as their major food intake, while at least 87% of fish stocks are over-exploited or in decline,” he said. “It’s a finite resource, and at least 30% of fish stocks worldwide are caught illegally, so it’s a major political problem.”

However, initiatives to curb IUU fishing are “hotting up”, he said. Many of these developments aim to increase transparency and the traceability of vessels and catches.

Among these programmes, the 2012 Cape Town Agreement is due to come into force in two years’ time. It will require fishing vessels to have IMO numbers and participate in a port state control inspection regime for specific safety and regulatory standards. “The increased documentation will boost transparency,” Gray explained, adding that several regional fisheries and management organisations are considering the use of IMO numbers for vessels on their systems.

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization is looking at methods to ensure fishing vessels report in when they enter foreign ports and are available for inspection. “This could mitigate some of the illegal catches coming ashore,” Gray said.

A global record of fishing vessel details is being created by IHS Maritime & Trade that then creates and provides each vessel (of 100 gt and above) with a Unique Vessel Identifier (UVI). The UVI is stamped on all documentation related to a vessel. Of the 50,000 to 185,000 fishing vessels in operation worldwide, 22,000 UVIs have been issued so far.

However, the task is not going to be easy. While the new systems aim to increase transparency and traceability, the Secure Fisheries report finds that IUU fishing vessels tend to “cover or obscure their names and identification numbers, making it difficult for others to report suspicious activities”.