The threat of a bad report card from the European Union has alarmed the more than 30,000 Vietnamese commercial traditional trawlers considered at risk of being deemed uncooperative in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. With EU officials expected to return to Vietnam next week for a reassessment of Vietnam’s violations, the fishing industry has been fast-tracking measures to correct its marine practices. In the process, Vietnam may become a model for ASEAN countries.
“The EU carding system to drive out illegal fishing is showing it has real teeth, and the reason is simple,” says Tony Long, former director, WWF European Policy Office and a Senior Fellow of the Global Government Institute. “Countries are terrified that the ultimate sanction, the red card, imposes potentially enormous financial sanctions and significant risks.”
There’s no simple solution to force the industry, or consumers, to cut back on their insatiable appetite for fish. But with the increasing number of empty nets and a growing Asia population, overfishing continues to deplete oceans across the globe, with nearly 90 per cent of the world’s fisheries fully exploited or facing complete collapse. Certainly, with more armadas of fishing fleets plundering the ocean floors, there’s a looming food security issue unfolding in the South China Sea.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), between 11 and 26 million tons of fish, or 15% of world catches, are caught illegally every year. As the world’s biggest fish importer, the EU does not wish to be complicit in these unsustainable fishing practices. Since 2012 the EU Commission has initiated formal dialogues with several countries, thus the “yellow card” status warning. When significant progress is observed, the Commission can end the dialogue or raise the status to a “green card”. When there’s no or little compliance, it results in a failing grade - a “red card”, which translates into no exports.
Fishing is a cornerstone of Vietnam’s economy and since 2006 the nation has been globally ranked among the top ten leading exporting countries in fisheries. Its seafood industry is recognized as one of the world’s largest, along with the US, China and Norway, and expects to export more than $8 billion of its products worldwide, according to the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters (VASEP).
In seafood sales or export turnover - the range is between $1.9 to $2.2 billion - exports to the EU and the U.S. account for 16-17% (each market) with the value set on average per year at $350-$400 million.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) and the Directorate of Fisheries, including the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP), have mandated that all of them circle their nets to take measurable actions to balance fishing capacity and fishing fleet policy. The new Fisheries Law has been approved by the National Assembly, including regulation articles for the IUU.
This national action plan is a top-down command directive issued by Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to crack down on IUU fishing activities. As part of this drive, more than 62 seafood companies have joined ranks to insure sustainability practices.
The government has issued a flurry of decrees and directives, including supplementing IUU fishing regulations to legal documents, enforcement of regulations, educational workshops for fishermen, enhancement of cooperation with coastal and island countries to prevent IUU fishing, and regular dialogues with the EU on efforts to improve fisheries management.
“Of course, the development of marine conservation, aquatic conservation and natural resource protection is needed because stakeholders around the world recognize its importance,” claims Nguyen Hoai Nam, the deputy general secretary of VASEP.
Vietnam recognizes this is not only their problem, since the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries are estimated to account for one-fifth of global marine fish production. Six of them are in the world’s top 15 fish producers, with Indonesia in second place. This sector supports over 100 million jobs out of a total population of 600 million, including over 10 million fishers.
With more than 3.5 million fishing vessels in Asia accounting for 75 percent of the global fishing fleet, it’s no wonder that there’s rampant violation of fishing rules and increased competition for marine resources.
Vietnam’s proactive responses including placing observers, many of whom are former fishing captains, aboard their commercial trawlers to complete monitoring of catches. In 2010, in response to a Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development report, Vietnam’s prime minister approved a national system to effectively manage marine protected areas (MPA) in sovereign waters. These include: Hon Mun in Nha Trang Bay, Cu Lao Cham and Phu Quoc. These organizations are an increasingly popular strategy for managing fisheries and contribute to resource rights.
Additionally, fishing captains are encouraged to keep an accurate logbook or registry of catches for inspection or become subject to fines in excess of $2000US and revocation of commercial fishing licenses.
Hanoi simply does not want to repeat Thailand’s mistakes, where a high percentage of the fishing fleet is unregistered and outside government control. Neither does it want to follow its neighbor, Cambodia, and be at the end of the line with a red card from the EU and unable to export fish.
The Vietnamese Directorate of Fisheries has developed a national fishery database that integrates data related to fishing vessels including registration, licensing, logbook entries and now uniformly-accepted software (VNFISHBASE) utilized in 8 coastal provinces.
While the nation’s fishery associations believe that there’s a need for more vocational centers to educate fishers about current and relevant fishing regulations, it’s an unclear future about Vietnam’s fisheries management regime. In the meantime, more time may be needed to earn a higher EU report card.