- - Tuesday, May 22, 2018

HANOI | Do Van Hung, a 58-year-old, third-generation Haiphong fisherman, plies his colorful new 60-foot wooden trawler through a sea that no longer seems boundless.

While recent catches have been down compared to 2017, the bigger problem is a “yellow card” issued by the European Union for what the EU says is Vietnam’s illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the South China Sea, casting a dark cloud over one of the world’s biggest fishing industries.

The warning is a shot across the bows of more than 30,000 commercial traditional trawlers whose livelihood could be at risk if an agreement isn’t reached.

With EU officials expected to return to Vietnam this month, the fishing industry has been fast-tracking measures to boost its rating. But with nearly 70,000 Vietnamese independent fishers also on the waters, Hanoi faces logistical hurdles complying with the EU standards.

“The EU carding system to drive out illegal fishing is showing it has real teeth,” said Tony Long, former director of the World Wildlife Federation’s European Policy Office, and now a senior fellow at the Global Governance Institute.

“The reason is simple,” he said. “Countries are terrified that the ultimate sanction, the red card, imposes potentially enormous financial sanctions and significant risks. The EU’s threat to block fisheries exports into the lucrative European 28-member state market for non-compliance is a massive big stick to police global fishing practices. And the EU is showing it is not afraid to use it.”

The EU issued a set of nine recommendations to the Vietnamese seafood sector in October, giving the country six months to show progress. A delegation of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries is wrapping up a critical mission this week to gauge Hanoi’s efforts.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that between 11 million and 26 million tons of fish or at least 15 percent of world catches, are caught illegally every year. As the world’s biggest fish importer, the EU is using its market clout to fight what the bloc sees as unsustainable fishing practices. A “red card” translates into no sales.

Fishing is a cornerstone of Vietnam’s economy. Hanoi’s seafood industry ranks with the U.S., China and Norway as among the world’s largest. Vietnam expects to export more than $8 billion of its seafood products worldwide, according to the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP). Exports to the EU and the U.S. each account for about 17 percent of the export market, with the value averaging about $350 million to $400 million per year.

Outside pressure led Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to crack down on illegal fishing activities, including a pledge from more than 62 seafood companies to join the national program. Over the past three months, there have been a flurry of decrees and directives, including supplementing fishing regulations to legal documents, enforcement of regulations, educational workshops for fishermen, enhancement of cooperation with coastal and island countries to prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and regular dialogues with the EU on efforts to improve fisheries management.

But compliance is an easy or straightforward process.

Authorities must rein in the nearly 70,000 often unlicensed artisan fishers; identify commercial fishers who are concealing or forging evidence on their activities; and pursue trans-shipments; illegal fishing in sea waters under the management of other regional, national and territorial fisheries.

But the effort “is needed because stakeholders around the world recognize its importance,” said Nguyen Hoai Nam, VASEP’s deputy general secretary.

Illegal fishing occurs in every ocean in the world, resulting in the loss of individual jobs and income, depletion of existing fish stocks, damage to the marine environment and loss of state revenue. It is estimated that approximately 30 percent of total catches of globally important fisheries comes from unsanctioned fishing.

According to the FAO, illegal fishing situation leads to the loss of both short and long-term social and economic opportunities and to negative effects on food security and environmental protection.

The impact can be seen in the Gulf of Thailand, where overall catch levels by largely unregulated Thai fishing fleets have declined by 86 percent over the past 40 years.

Vietnamese authorities have developed a national fishery database that integrates data related to fishing vessels such as registration, licensing, logbook entries and now a uniformly accepted software used in eight coastal provinces.

From Da Nang’s busy fishing harbor, Capt. Nguyen Thanh with his fleet of four offshore vessels sails regularly to the dangerous and contested Paracel Islands to catch tuna. He keeps a logbook and has informed all of his crew members about avoiding the banned fish species, the regulations on nets and adherence to the prescribed fishing seasons.

Despite grumbling from fishers about revealing prized fishing spots, in many instances, seafood processors will refuse to buy the catches if the fishing boats refuse to document their practices.

And Do Van Hung, the third-generation fisherman, finds a bit of maritime wisdom useful in trying to navigate the current shoals.

The “yellow card” may be a threat, he remarked, but “sometimes clouds and storms only bring us more fish.”

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