Vietnam News

Vietnam reins in fisheries as EU ‘yellow card’ threatens sector

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Continued illegal fishing may cause third-biggest exporter to lose billions

Vietnam’s fishermen are now sailing the seas equipped with better tracking devices and improved ship logging methods in a bid to steer clear of penalties imposed by the European Union for illegal fishing, and to join efforts aimed at preventing depletion of the world’s marine life.

The tracking measures and new penalties have been part of a crackdown since 2017 when the EU slapped a warning on Vietnam — the world’s third-biggest fish exporter, whose overfishing has gotten its boats sunk by neighboring Indonesia. The warning, officially referred to as a “yellow card,” is meant to advise Vietnam to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

It has hung like an albatross around the country’s fishing sector, which faces a red card, or outright ban on fish exports to the EU, if the problems remain unresolved.

While the EU previously said Vietnam’s local and central governments lacked effective oversight powers, two provinces recently fined fishermen $43,000 each for switching off tracking gear and illegally fishing in Malaysia and Indonesia, state broadcaster VTV reported on Dec. 9.

Vietnam hoped to shed the yellow card this year, ending the extra customs scrutiny that pushed fish sales to the EU down by 36% — about $320 million — from 2018 to 2020. But with COVID-19 preventing EU inspectors from visiting the Southeast Asian country, waiting to lose the less-than-favorable status will drag on into 2022.

Vietnam’s dismal fishing grade has not gone unnoticed by the central government, owing to the sector’s importance to the economy. Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh has listed several national priorities to help the country recover from the pandemic, according to an Oct. 3 post on the government news portal. Besides increasing public investment and leveraging trade deals, the post said, Vietnam must get the EU yellow card removed.

As the world’s biggest fish importer, the EU claims to have a duty to ensure responsible sourcing, a concern that is increasing in the wake of growing global fish consumption and Seapiracy, a contentious documentary film, spotlighting destructive fishing.

One destructive method, bottom trawling, involves dragging nets along the seabed. The three biggest producers of trawled catch are China, Vietnam and Indonesia, according to a report this month by environmental group Fauna & Flora International.

Overfishing is “detrimental” to marine life, but also self-defeating, said Vuong Trong Binh, World Wildlife Fund’s specialist on Vietnamese fishing, in comments to Nikkei Asia.

“IUU can destroy marine habitats like coral reefs [and] further degrade overall marine ecosystems, thus creating negative impacts on long-term livelihoods of fishing communities,” he said.

Whales, dolphins, turtles and other endangered species become collateral damage when they get unintentionally captured, Binh explained.

Vietnam’s Fisheries Law took effect in 2019 and establishes protected zones, a database to track vessels and hefty penalties. It also bans some fishing techniques, like the use of explosives or electric pulses.

To keep fishermen from encroaching on foreign waters, Vietnam has registered its ships and issued licenses, forcing fishermen to install gear that monitors their movements. The country has also set up a system to collect landing data, such as catchweight.

The world is starting to realize that marine life is in decline. According to the United Nations’ State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020 biennial report, 90% of fish stocks were at biologically sustainable levels in 1990 — a number that plunged to 66% by 2017.

The European Commission handed out 27 yellow cards from 2012 to 2021, including to Thailand and the Philippines — both of which subsequently had the cards lifted — and Cambodia, which has since been slapped with a red card.

Despite dire warnings over the oceans’ plight, some governments in Europe and elsewhere have doled out “harmful subsidies” that “shift the risk of overfishing to other countries’ water,” says Oceana, a nonprofit marine conservation organization. The environmental group reported that the top three entities offering subsidies are China, Japan and the EU. The World Trade Organization is trying to stamp out these subsidies.

An EC official told Nikkei that when pandemic conditions allow, the commission will visit Vietnam, which is expanding on its Fisheries Law as part of an industry overhaul.

“Once fully implemented, this new legislation will allow Vietnam to fulfill its international obligations in relation to combating IUU fishing,” the official said on Monday. “Vietnam acknowledges that the level of implementation of the new legal framework is not yet sufficient, but is working intensely to achieve this goal.”

By Lien Hoang – Nikkei Asia – December 21, 2021

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