A ship called Neptune and a company called Space Energy Enterprises don’t bring to mind fish — but fishing is the business of this Taiwanese company and its operations are fishy in the extreme.
Neptune came to international attention this year when a French patrol allegedly caught it fishing in the Pacific Ocean without a license from any Pacific Island country, nor from the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), which regulates fishing in the region.
The Pacific is now the source of more than half of the world’s tuna, and as stocks have been depleted elsewhere, fleets from around the world have flocked to the region. The fishing pressure is taking a toll — bigeye and yellowfin tuna are being overfished, and Pacific bigeye has been decimated to almost the same extent as Atlantic bluefin, a species now synonymous with fisheries mismanagement. Last week, the secretariat for the Pacific Community released a report warning that, in a worst case scenario, Pacific fisheries could collapse by 2035.
Pirate fishing vessels undermine Pacific fisheries management and steal fish from properly regulated fishing fleets and Pacific Island countries. Many of these pirate vessels sidestep fishing, maritime or labor rules by flying the flag of a country that hasn’t signed up to them or doesn’t bother to enforce them, known as “flags of convenience.” Neptune, although owned by a company in Fongshan (鳳山), Kaohsiung County, flies the flag of Georgia — a country that is not a member of the WCPFC.
When WCPFC members met last month, they grappled with how to call Georgia to account when it is not a member of the commission, but they should really have looked across the table to Taiwan for answers. With brazen disregard for the WCPFC convention that Taiwan has agreed to comply with, Taiwan never spoke up about the conduct of its company and the people operating Neptune.
Neptune is just one of many Taiwanese-owned vessels that fly foreign flags in order to circumvent the rules and fish with impunity, to the outrage of Pacific Island countries and other commission members.
Evidence of this lack of control was clear for all to see at the WCPFC technical meeting. On the agenda were 12 vessels that have been indicted for illegal, unregulated or unreported fishing in the region, and no less than five of those vessels were owned by Taiwanese companies — one flying a Taiwanese flag and the other four operating under foreign flags. These vessels call into question Taiwan’s commitment to the sustainability of Pacific fisheries, as well as its ability to manage such a vast fishing fleet.
However, there is a possible glimmer of hope in the form of Taiwan’s six-year plan to better regulate its far-seas fishing fleet. As part of that plan, Taiwan enacted the Ordinance to Govern Investment in the Operation of Foreign Flag Fishing Vessels (投資經營非我國籍漁船作業辦法), requiring vessels with Taiwanese investment or operational staff to register with the Council of Agriculture by April last year. This was followed by another law stipulating that no Taiwanese national may engage in fishing beyond Taiwan’s own exclusive economic zone or invest in or operate foreign-flagged fishing vessels without prior authorization. Taiwan now has, at least on paper, the power to regulate both its foreign-flagged vessels and its nationals owning or operating foreign fishing ventures.
However, rules on paper are not enough. At the same time that Neptune’s alleged pirate fishing was being discussed in the Pacific, Greenpeace launched a report on Taiwan which identified more than 300 foreign-flagged vessels owned or operated by Taiwanese, only a fraction of which were registered with the council as required by law. In total, the unregistered vessels in the report The Inconvenient Truth of Taiwan’s Flags of Convenience would be liable for more than NT$400 million (US$13.25 million) in fines if Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency were to enforce its own legislation.
Neptune was a case in point: Greenpeace has documented its Taiwanese ownership, yet the vessel is not registered in accordance with the ordinance. Greenpeace challenged Taiwan to take immediate action against those vessels flouting Taiwanese law, not to mention those that make a mockery of international fisheries law at the same time. This would be a first step to redeeming the reputation of Taiwan’s own and foreign-flagged fleets that have been tarnished by repeated cases of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.
The other immediate action Taiwan must take is to support the closure of the Pacific’s “pirate fishing playgrounds.” The Cook Islands have put forward a proposal to close an area of high seas bordering its own waters, which have been under siege from pirate fishing. That proposal will be up for discussion at the WCPFC’s meeting next month and all eyes will be on Taiwan to see how far it has progressed in acknowledging and addressing the problem its far-seas fishing fleet has created.
Taiwan has a lot of work ahead to enforce its own laws and build a reputation as a responsible fishing entity. Come next month, Taiwan’s support for Pacific Island countries’ initiatives to close the high seas “playgrounds” will be the first measuring stick against which it is judged.
Karli Thomas is a Greenpeace oceans campaigner based in Aotearoa, New Zealand.
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