Vietnam’s struggle over IUU fishing warning, fatal to its fisherman?

The Vietnamese government has implemented strict rules for its fishery industry in order to have an EU Yellow Card warning lifted. The Thai example has proved that success is achieved at the expense of the grassroots, leading sometimes even to deaths.

The European Commission has long been combatting IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated) fishing and announced regulations in 2008 for EU member states and other nations worldwide to follow. Southeast Asia, as one of the biggest fish exporters to the EU, has felt the impact.

The Food and Agriculture Organization enacted an International Plan of Action on IUU (IPOA-IUU) in 2001, with the aim of sustainable management and use of marine resources. The plan of action called for voluntary implementation by all countries.

In 2015, when a Yellow Card was given to Thailand, it sent a signal to improve the serious situation on IUU fishing. It took about 3 years to have the card lifted, at the expense of a fishery sector shaken by sudden legal and structural change.

The Fisheries Act enacted in 2015 and amended in 2017 requires fishing boats of more than 30 tons gross to have a tracking system installed. The law also creates a strict port-in port-out registration of boat crews and sets a limit on the number of days that the boats are allowed to set to sea.

In addition, 9 NCPO Head’s Orders were issued under Article 44 of the temporary Constitution regarding IUU fishing and foreign labour. The orders mostly granted the authorities more control and enforcement capability to handle the issue.

As a result of the sudden change, in 2017, at least 680 boats were unable to set sail. In 2015, the President of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand reported that many fishers had committed suicide due to the stress caused by the financial cost of new equipment required under the new law, while the officials said they were ready to provide support.

Now Vietnam is facing the same dilemma.

On 23 October 2017, the European Commission (EC) gave a Yellow Card to Vietnam for IUU fishing, a warning from its second largest seafood export market, which dealt a huge blow to its fishing industry.

In June 2018, an EC Inspection Delegation informed Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) that IUU exploitation in Vietnam had not improved significantly, especially at the implementation level.

The Vietnamese authorities implemented several measures to address the EC’s 9 recommendations, including the central issues of prevention and elimination of illegal fishing outside its national Exclusive Economic Zone and improvement of traceability of fishery products.

Amendments to the fishery law were approved by the Vietnamese parliament on 21 November 2017 and implemented on 1st January 2019. The amendments aim to ensure compliance, in line with the actual conditions of Vietnam, with international regulations including UNCLOS (1982), PSMA (2009), UNFSA (1995), CCRF (1995) and IPOA-IUU.

Local authorities were given official guidelines on how to implement the international regulations, focusing on strict measures to manage the licensing of fishing vessels, port-in port-out controls, increased patrols for preventive inspections and control at sea, and strict provisions for handling violations and sanctions against IUU fishing vessels.

In order to raise local fishers’ awareness on fisheries regulation, particularly with regard to fishing operations in foreign waters, the MARD directed the Vietnam Directorate of Fisheries to collaborate and coordinate with Vietnam Television, agriculture publications and other media in implementing propaganda programmes to combat IUU fishing.

The Vietnam Fisheries Resources Surveillance agency has conducted 76 missions during 1,489 days of sea patrols to deal with IUU fishing operations and detected and punished 865 fishing vessels which violated the regulations.

3 vessels fishing illegally in Australian waters and New Caledonia were strictly punished for violating the regulations. The owners of fishing vessels violating IUU fishing regulations were given administrative sanctions including withdrawal of master certificates and fishing licenses.

The 2017 fisheries law states that illegal vessels in foreign waters must have their fishing licenses withdrawn. An individual who violates the regulation will be fined a maximum of 1 billion VND and an organization will be fined a maximum of 2 billion VND for illegal fishing operations in foreign waters.

Beside amending the law, MARD tried to raise local fishermen’s awareness of fisheries regulations, particularly in operations in foreign waters.

The Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Processors and the Vietnam Fisheries Society have also developed a plan and organized propaganda activities to combat IUU fishing.

The Coast Guard, Border Defence Force and Navy focus mainly on patrolling, inspection and control of fishing activities at sea. The prevention and elimination of illegal Vietnamese fishing in foreign waters are considered one of their core duties.

To improve product traceability, the 2017 fisheries law states that the port authorities are assigned to verify catch certificates. Sub-Departments of Capture Fisheries and Resources Protection are in charge of granting catch certificates.

Imported fishery products must be of clear origin. Fishing fleets in near-shore waters have the obligation to port in the designated ports, and vessel masters have the responsibility to declare catch information and submit completed fishing logbooks.

The number of Vietnamese fishing vessels in foreign waters whose owners violate the regulations has significantly decreased.  From 1 to 23 October 2017, 30 out of 292 vessels violated foreign waters. After 23 October 2017, only 2 out of 29 vessels illegally fished in New Caledonia. They were fined according to the present regulations and had their master certificates and fishing licenses withdrawn.

Transfer of ownership of those vessels is not allowed. Their names shall be deleted and the vessel owners shall be prohibited from building new vessels. In the first 4 months of 2018, no illegal fishing vessels have been detected in the Pacific island countries.

During 1-23 October 2017, 50 out of 397 Vietnamese fishing vessels in the ASEAN region were found violating the regulations. From 23 October 2017 to 15 March 2018, 20 out of 103 vessels also have been found violating the regulations.

The Vietnamese government aims to have the yellow card lifted by 2019. What we are seeing are harsh measures implemented by the central government. The lesson from Thailand shows that such measures have been fatal to some parts of the fishery industry. Unfortunately, these parts are human.

The future of the fishing industry under the government’s iron fist is worth observing.


Additional reference: Vietnam Fisheries: will the 'Yellow Card' be removed in 2019?