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Vietnam needs to make its fishing practices more sustainable

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Vietnam was issued a yellow card in October 2017 by the European Commission (EC) because of rampant illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities by Vietnamese fishermen and fishing vessels.

Since then, following its carding system, the EC have conducted several reviews of Vietnam’s fisheries and seafood-related policies and efforts to determine whether the yellow card would be maintained or rescinded. However, all results disappointed both sides.

EC’s requirements, Vietnam’s frustration

The failure of Vietnam’s efforts in removing the yellow card should be ascribed to Vietnam’s limited progress in improving fisheries governance and curbing IUU fishing.

In other words, Vietnam has not effectively enacted all recommendations raised by EC, including: (1) Revising the legal framework to ensure compliance with international and regional rules applicable to the conservation and management of fisheries resources; (2) Ensuring effective implementation and enforcement of country’s revised laws; (3) Strengthening the effective implementation of international rules and management measures; (4) Increasing the traceability of its seafood products; (5) Preventing sales of IUU products.

However, the Vietnamese government thought it was wronged. As Vietnamese officials have repeatedly stated, the Vietnamese government has taken strict measures and made significant progress in recent years to fulfil EC’s requirements, such as (1) Amending the fisheries law and strengthening the legislation; (2) Creating a legal framework for a gradual transition to commercial, responsible and sustainable fisheries; (3) Reducing the number of Vietnamese fishing boats operating illegally in other countries; (4) Downsizing the fishing fleet; (5) Strengthening education and information so as to raise awareness of our fishermen not to violate other countries’ waters.

But why is there such a difference between Vietnam’s intention and reality? A direct answer is that the effectiveness of Vietnam’s implementation of the relevant policies to curb IUU fishing is far from expected.

Factors accounting for Vietnam’s low efficiency in removing the yellow card

From an economic perspective, Vietnam has suffered vast losses because of the yellow card status and thus has a strong need to remove the yellow card.

Recent statistics show that Vietnam’s export of fishery products relied considerably on European (EU) market, which is one of the biggest export markets of Vietnam’s fishery products with a value of $1.3 billion in 2019, accounting for 15.1 per cent of the total seafood export value of Vietnam.

However, the EU has many strict technical regulations on food safety, environment and sustainable development. Vietnamese businesses should meet the requirements of food safety and hygiene to access the market and quality is paramount and key to Vietnam’s development strategy for seafood exports.

Due to the yellow card for Vietnam’s seafood products, Vietnam’s exports to the EU fell by 6.5 per cent to US$390 million in 2018 and by 11.5 per cent to $345.2 million in 2019 according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) of Vietnam.

Nevertheless, economic concerns have not given a strong impetus to Vietnam’s full commitment to curbing IUU fishing. The reasons are multifold.

First, fishing operations by Vietnamese fishermen and fishing boats, either legal or illegal have been acquiesced as a necessary mean by the government to safeguard its maritime rights. The Vietnamese government hence hesitates to exert all efforts to regulate fishing activities, despite evoked strong protests from neighboring countries.

Second, exhausting fishery resources and unsuccessful fishery industrial transition and upgrade failed creating new employment opportunities for local fishermen, who are forced to take the risk of conducting illegal fishing activities as a matter of survival.

Third, the regulatory authorities sometimes lack the ability in monitoring IUU fishing attributed to both financial and technological factors.

Rescinding the card: Vietnam needs new perspectives

In short, the Vietnam’s combat with IUU fishing lacks motivation, either politically or socio-economically. Facing past unsuccessful experiences and current pressure, Vietnam needs to have new thinking.

First, divert the orientation of policies from unilateral activities to multi- and bilateral cooperation. IUU fishing has long been a source of contention in regional disputes and flare-ups between regional states. Curbing IUU fishing hence cannot be conducted unilaterally.

One precondition for effective cooperation is the consensus of maintaining the stability at sea. It is thus important for Vietnam to abandon the idea that encroaching into disputed waters by Vietnamese fishermen is a mean of safeguarding maritime sovereignty. Maritime disputes can only be solved through negotiation under international laws. Based on this, there is possibility to jointly establish an IUU fishing combat network in the interest of regional states around the South China Sea.

Second, pursue innovative approaches in improving the living standard of fishermen to reduce their dependence on illegal IUU. More than half of Southeast Asia’s inhabitants (including the Vietnamese) rely on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods. Due to constantly exhausted fishery resources, it is rather understandable that local fishermen will continue using illegal methods to increase their catch.

The policy-makers have to consider how to diversify their income sources. Deep-sea farming and aquaculture industry shall be encouraged. Based on this, advanced processing industries can be established to upgrade the export structure with value-added fishery and seafood products aiming for EU market.

Third, introduce high technology to optimize existing monitoring system. Although Vietnam has made great efforts in installing fishing vessel monitoring systems based on the EC’s recommendations, only about thirty percent of the Vietnamese fishing boats have been equipped with such facilities. Moreover, future IUU fishing trace and suppression need the Vietnamese government to apply high-tech facilities and infrastructure, such as IT-driven risk management system, big-data analysis, wireless sensor networks, etc. This requires the Vietnamese government to allocate more funds and resources for research and development.

Of course, all parties shall bear in mind that curbing IUU fishing is a time- and resource-consuming process. Some scholars have argued that regional states’ efforts to combat IUU fishing are seldom fully evaluated. Some research institutions also emphasize too much on the status quo, reducing the interest of the EC and other countries in making positive progress in practice.

Nevertheless, to remove the yellow card, Vietnam has to insist on co-operation, transparency and honesty in providing and exchanging information regarding curbing IUU fishing. Only by this can Vietnam harvest extensive environmental, economic and diplomatic benefits.

By Xu Xiaodong – Sustainability Times – March 18, 2021

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