EDITORIAL: Hoping for a good catch

Sat, Oct 07, 2017 - Page 8

It has been two years since the EU put Taiwan on its “yellow card” warning list for failure to do enough to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Fishermen’s associations, the fisheries industry and officialdom are anxiously awaiting the arrival this month of an EU committee to evaluate the nation’s progress over the past two years, hoping that enough has been done to get off the warning list.

IUU fishing is one of the main causes of depleted fishing stocks, degradation of marine habitats and economic hardships for small-scale coastal fishing communities around the world, and over the past decade many nations have finally woken up to the threats posed to their economies and to the future of the oceans by such practices.

The widespread abuse of migrant workers employed on deep-sea fishing vessels has also become a key issue in reforming the fisheries industries in many nations, including in Taiwan, with a push for more humane treatment, and better pay and protections.

While many in Taiwan might view the EU as a far-off abstract entity, it is one of the biggest fish importers in the world, which means the threat of a trade ban is a powerful motivator in getting exporters to follow its requirements.

Since January 2010, one of those requirements has been that fishery industries seek to comply with international regulations to prevent and eventually eliminate IUU fishing, which is how Taiwan ended up on the warning list.

It is safe to say that the EU’s decision that Taiwan was not doing enough to combat IUU and its issuance of a “yellow card” panicked the nation’s fisheries industry and the government into taking action.

In meetings in April with EU Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries representatives, Taiwanese officials were told that the nation was on the right track, but new laws, action plans and the establishment of control measures were just the starting point.

Effective enforcement and ensuring compliance were going to be crucial, they were told, and therein lies the rub.

Taiwan has a long track record of adequate laws on the books, but patchy enforcement, compounded by paltry fines and limited punishments, leading to firms in many sectors finding it more cost-effective to continue to pay fines than to make the changes needed to conform to the law or regulations.

It does not help when officials charged with enforcing the law appear to have more sympathy for lawbreakers than concern for the law, or when the agencies drag their feet in hiring the numbers of personnel or providing the training needed to comply with the regulations.

Council of Agriculture Deputy Minister Chen Chi-chung (陳吉仲) did the government no favors by tearily saying in August that it hurt the council to have to hand down heavy fines to fishermen who contravened the new rules and urging those fined to file appeals if they felt the punishments were unreasonable.

The Fisheries Agency does not have enough personnel to conduct labor inspections to monitor the treatment of foreign fishermen working on Taiwanese boats, inspect the catches of Taiwanese vessels at designated foreign ports, or ensure fishermen’s compliance with the new regulations.

Hiring, training and retaining such staff takes time, and Taiwan cannot realistically expect to find itself off the EU’s watch list until it can prove it can truly enforce its new laws, though it can hope such respite comes sooner rather than later.

However, once Taiwan is off the list, that should not be seen as signal that vigilance can be eased. IUU fishing is going to remain a threat for decades and this is another area where Taiwan can show what a good global neighbor and partner it can be.