EU auditors: ‘Member states need to tighten the net to end illegal fishing’

EU auditors: ‘Member states need to tighten the net to end illegal fishing’
Credit. ECA

The measures put into place by the EU member states to keep illegal fishing in check differ by country and are not so effective as they should be, according to a new audit report published last week by the European Court of Auditors (ECA).

The new report is linked to a previous audit from November 2020 but the reports cover different aspects of EU’s fisheries management.  The previous report dealt with EU action to protect the marine environment. The new report focuses exclusively on the actions to combat illegal fishing, including the issue of import control of fisheries products from third countries.

The audit team told The Brussels Times that its special audit reports are typically followed-up three years after their publication so it was too early to follow up the 2020 report.  However, a follow up on a report from 2017 on fisheries control showed that all the recommendations made in that report had been mostly implemented.

The EU is a major global player in fisheries, both in terms of its fishing fleet with around 79,000 vessels and as the world’s largest importer of fishery products with 34 % of total world trade. In line with the Sustainable Development Goals, the EU has been committed to ending illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by 2020, a target which has not been met.

Fisheries policy is an exclusive competence of the EU, which means that it is the EU policy that sets rules for the management of the European fishing fleet and the conservation of fish stocks. For example, EU rules set quotas for certain fish stocks, impose minimum fish sizes, and regulate fishing gears.

Importantly, EU it also provides funding to support fisheries control. The EU Maritime and Fisheries fund supported Member States with a total budget of €580 million between 2014 and 2020.

“The EU has control systems in place to make it harder for illegally fished products to reach consumers,” said Eva Lindström, the Swedish ECA member who led the audit. “But in spite of those measures, these products keep ending up on EU citizens’ plates. One key reason is that checks and sanctions are applied unevenly by Member States”.

Mixed audit findings

The problem in EU’s fisheries management is twofold and concerns both imported fishery products and fish caught in the territorial waters of the EU member states. On the positive side, a card system has proven useful in triggering reforms in most non-EU countries. When a non-EU country receives a ‘red card’, EU Member States must reject all imports of fishery products from that country’s vessels.

So far, the Commission has issued yellow cards to 21 third countries and a red card to six. In most cases, the card was lifted after reforms in the countries concerned, according to the audit team.

However, the EU catch-certification scheme set up in 2008 is still paper-based which entails an increased risk of fraud, the auditors say. While the EU scheme has the most comprehensive coverage compared to similar schemes around the world, it is weakened by significant differences in the scope and quality of the checks done by the Member States.

In 2019, the European Commission developed an EU-wide IT system to help detect fraud and to automate controls but no Member State uses it because it is on a voluntary basis.

“It’s important that checks are robust enough to prevent ‘control shopping’, where operators exploit the weakest link and try to slip through the net by importing in the country with weakest controls,” says ECA member Lindström.

Member States are responsible for checking fishing activities of their fleets wherever they operate in the world, and of all vessels in their national waters. The auditors found that national checks often detected instances of illegal fishing. Nevertheless, overfishing and underreporting of catches persist due to weak controls in some Member States.

Misreporting of catches is the most common infringement by the EU fleet, followed by fishing in closed areas or with no quota allocation, and using illegal gear. There is also ample evidence that enforcing the landing obligation is a challenge, and that illegal discards at sea persist. As regards the sanctioning system, the auditors noted the absence of a level playing field across the EU.

The audit team carried out desk studies of the control systems in Spain, France and Denmark, and on-the-spot checks in Sweden. How did you collect data from the other countries? 

“We indeed conducted very productive in-depth videoconference interviews with the national fisheries control authorities of Spain, France and Denmark,” replied Eva Lindström. “As auditors, we often prefer to see things on the spot, but due to COVID we had to adapt as we could only visit one Member State on the spot, Sweden.”

“Data on controls and sanctions is available for all Member States. For example, Member States must report every five years on the results of their fisheries control systems, and every two years on the results of their import control. They also must keep detailed records of sanctions. Our findings are based on large amounts of data reported by Member States, data that we cannot get by observation.”

A major finding in the audit is the uneven way in which the Member States are implementing checks and controls. Can you explain the differences between them?

The auditors noted that the Spanish control system for imported products was far more advanced than the system set up by Sweden. The findings in the report seem to indicate that the quality of the checks is higher in Spain and France than in Denmark and Sweden but ECA did not agree. “We don’t conclude that the differences are linked to geography (i.e. North vs. South),” Eva Lindström replied.

“For import control, we compared the systems in four Member States, and concluded that there were some differences in their scope and quality.  Based on data reported by all Member States, we can also say that some Member States conduct only the most basic checks, while others carry out deeper verifications.”

Based on data reported by the Member States, the audit team noted that five of them - Germany, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal and Sweden - reported that they had only performed the more basic checks.

She added that the audit team had reached a similar conclusion for the control of national fleets and waters, where data showed that not all Member States perform the control in the same way.

“We noted for example that a handful of Member States are detecting the majority of all infringements. In total, Member States reported 69,400 infringements during this period, with over 76 % detected by just three Member States and former EU member United Kingdom: Italy (46 %), the United Kingdom (12 %), Greece (11 %) and Spain (8 %).

But there is no reason to believe that their fleets are less compliant that the ones from other Member States with comparable fleet size, according to the auditors.  “This is likely to have to do with the more advanced controls they have in place. The Commission’s oversight of Member States has shown that some Member States must improve their systems.”

More concretely, more than half of the Member States are now required to implement action plans to resolve deficiencies in their fisheries controls: Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Finland, Croatia, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden, Slovenia.

A shortcoming was that the compulsory use by the EU Member States of the catch-certification system (IT CATCH) developed by the Commission was not made compulsory from the start. Did the Council or the Parliament object against adopting the legal basis for it?  

“A 2018 Commission proposal would make the system compulsory,” she replied. “We cannot say that the Council, nor the Parliament, are ‘objecting’ to this measure, merely that whole proposal of fisheries control has not been adopted as of today.  We can only speculate that this is probably due to political issues at Parliament and Council level.”

The report states that there is ample evidence that illegal discards at sea persist. Is the use of Remote Electronic Monitoring with cameras (REM) on fishing vessels to prevent bycatch foreseen in your recommendations? 

“We did not recommend a specific solution directly, as the issue is now part of the political discussion on the 2018 Commission’s proposal, which would impose the use of cameras on board of some vessels. Currently, there is no other technological solution to control what is happening on fisheries vessels at sea.”

The Commission accepted your recommendations but noted in its reply that many of the shortcomings identified by ECA and its recommendations relate mainly to the implementation of checks and sanctions at Member State level. Do you agree with this assessment? 

“We do. The Commission has a responsibility of oversight, but it is the Member States that perform the checks and apply sanctions.”

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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