Today, 85 percent of our planet’s fish stocks are fully exploited or in decline. The root causes are complex, ranging from entrenched economic policies that incentivize overexploitation rather than good stewardship, to de facto open-access fishing and fisheries governance, to insufficient data, weak enforcement and new fishing techniques that accelerate population decline and habitat degradation.
But amid gloomy forecasts for the immediate future of the world’s fisheries and the health of our oceans, two recent developments — announced within days of each other — are beacons of hope.
In early December 2020, Japan introduced new regulations that will restrict illegal, underreported and unregulated (IUU) seafood from entering its market. The following week, the world’s ten largest seafood companies — three of which are Japanese — publicly committed to eliminating IUU from their supply chains by the end of 2021.
These announcements reflect building momentum to maintain the productive capacity and integrity of marine ecosystems so that humanity can continue to benefit from our oceans, and not just as a source of food. That’s why the foundation supports grantees who are working directly with the seafood industry to re-orient the decision-making systems that drive the production and market demand for seafood, and that promote conservation solutions, encourage corporate commitments, and enable better governance.
Significance of Japan’s participation
IUU practices have been decimating fish stocks everywhere. Dozens of countries and tens of millions of consumers around the world share responsibility in seeing an end to IUU fishing. But because Japan is the world’s third largest consumer of fish and the leading consumer of high-value fish, it is in a fairly unique position to lead that change. Historically, the country’s laws have provided loopholes and safe harbor for these practices. In 2018, after 70 years, Japan revised its basic fisheries laws, and now, by enacting these new import control rules and requirements for electronic data gathering, Japan has the legislative tools it needs to keep contraband out of the country’s ports and its all-important consumer markets.
Marta Marrero Martin, Ocean Governance Director at The Nature Conservancy welcomed the news by declaring that, “this new legislation marks a historic moment in the global fight against IUU fishing. Japan joins the EU and the US in sending a clear and strong message to illegal operators, who will now have great difficulty in finding an entry point for their illegal products in the world’s three largest seafood markets.”
During the same week that the new legislation was announced, ten of the world's largest seafood companies — which comprise the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS) — publicly committed to eliminating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing from their operations by the end of next year. The companies together produce more than ten percent of global seafood and represent more than 600 subsidiary companies globally. And because three of these SeaBOS member companies are based in Japan, they will be complying with the new national law and making enormous progress towards fulfilling their now-public commitment to eradicate IUU fishing from their operations.
Blackmarket fishing knows no borders
Whether it’s illegal fishers operating without licenses, exceeding quotas, targeting under-sized fish or endangered species, or using banned fishing gear, IUU fishing has directly contributed to the one third of commercial fish stocks that have been harvested at biologically unsustainable levels, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. If current trends were to continue, we can expect the depletion of 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks within the next thirty years, and the commercial collapse of every species of wild-caught seafood.
Each year, tens of billions of dollars’ worth of fish are stolen at sea; in some countries, as many as one in three fish are procured illegally. In some places, industrial fishing displaces catch that would otherwise go to local legal fishermen; in others, local markets, livelihoods and sources of protein are severely distorted, often hurting already fragile coastal communities and resource-dependent economies.
The role of industry-led initiatives and NGOs
Because IUU actors operate under the radar — very often literally off the radar — and outside the jurisdictions of regulated waterways, putting an end to their operations has been a monumental challenge requiring a multi-pronged, multi-layered and coordinated approach that involves industry, governments, and local communities. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Conservation and Markets Initiative supports a number of industry-led initiatives in addition to SeaBOS — including the Seafood Task Force, the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation and the Global Dialogue on Seafood Transparency — all of which are publicly committed to countering IUU fishing.
At the same time, we support other non-profits — including Global Fishing Watch, C4ADS, The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Justice Foundation — developing the tools and providing the information and guidance to make it easier for industry-led platforms to choose to act.
For example, the foundation has actively supported The Nature Conservancy and its partners, funding smart technology to collect data around fish catches. Governments use that data to manage their marine ecosystems and establish protective fishing limits — and to make it harder for IUU vessels to operate.
With the Japanese government and SeaBOs companies accelerating pressure to combat IUU fishing, our grantees’ work to implement these commitments offer promise for safeguarding the health and abundance of wild-capture fish stocks.