Richard North, 12/06/2014  

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An interesting spat is developing over an unseen but vital area of EU policy-making – the control of commercial fishing in the waters of third-world countries. In this, we are seeing the EU, itself a predatory exploiter of third-world fisheries, attempt to assume the role of global policeman, sanctioning other nations for their assumed failures while ignoring its own.

A festering sore in international relations for some many years, this issue is now about to come to a head. Early next month, the EU is expected to hand South Korea a so-called "red card", designating it an IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Undocumented) fishing country - unless the Seoul government is able to convince EU fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki, that it is cracking down on illegal fishing by its nationally flagged boats.

To receive a "red card" means that a country is excluded from the waters of EU member states and, more problematic in the case of S. Korea, it will not be permitted to sell its seafood to any EU members. This is despite the EU having entered into a free trade agreement with S. Korea, with the 1,338-page text (plus protocols) coming into force on 1 July 2011.

South Korea is already on notice, having last year been given a "yellow card", alongside Curacao and Ghana. Now, continuing violations by S. Korean-flagged ships, especially in West African waters, are set to trigger EU action against the entire S. Korean export industry. This Asian country would then join Belize, Cambodia and Guinea on the naughty step, countries which in March last were the first recipients of EU "red cards".

What is especially interesting about these developments, though, is that the EU relies exclusively on surveillance services organised by the UK-based NGO, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) - its surveillance launch pictured below. The NGO was founded in 2001 by Steve Trent and Juliette Williams and has been paid an EU grant of €788,000 (80 percent of the total) to carry out surveillance activities. The money was paid in 2010 for a five-year period ending in December 2015 and, according to the EJF, is its main source of funding.

No one will disagree with the overall objectives of this NGO. It is taking on what it calls pirate fishing - the depredations of foreign fishing fleets engaged in illegal fishing. The estimated global value is approximately €10 billion per year. Between 11 and 26 million tons of fish are caught illegally a year, which corresponds to at least 15 percent of world catches. But questions are being asked as to why S. Korea appears to be being targeted, when most of the fleet in African waters is fishing legally, and their government is actively working on bringing illegal fishers to book.

Since 2010, the EJF says it has documented more than 200 cases of S. Korean ships allegedly targeting high-value fish species in waters off West Africa. The organisation claims that S. Korean "pirates" routinely fish in protected areas, flee fisheries patrols, refuse to pay fines, cover their identification markings, transship fish illegally at sea and attack local fishermen.

The Korea Times, however, has a slightly different "take", having a fisheries ministry official accuse the EU of ignoring the progress his country has been making. Ever since last November, it has been faithfully reporting actions taken to Brussels, with no response, yet now it sends us a delegation, he complains.

The local feeling was the EU was abusing its position as a major customer of for Korean fish products, anxious to show it was taking action on illegal fishing and using Korea as a scapegoat.

It had been noted that there had been Russian, Chinese and flagged ships from EU member states fishing West African waters, with hundreds of ships fishing in the region at any given time. And while EJF's contract required it to monitor all the activity, every single complaint of illegal fishing it had made involved Korean boats.

However, last year the EJF did report the Dutch-flagged cargo vessel Holland Klipper for carrying an estimated $14 million of suspected illegal fish, headed for the Korean port of Busan.

The 4,000 ton vessel was "believed" to have received illegal transshipments of fish from up to 20 Korean trawlers 95 miles off the coast of Guinea in the September. Using the Satellite Automatic Identification System (S-AIS),  the EJF had tracked the Korean-flagged Kum Woong 101 (pictured top) fishing illegally in Sierra Leone's Inshore Exclusion Zone (IEZ) – an area reserved by law for local fishers using artisanal canoes – before it travelled to Guinea, where it transferred its catch to the Dutch-flagged vessel.

However, the responsibility for the conduct of vessels lies with the flag nation. The Dutch should have been held responsible for sanctioning the Holland Klipper for its part in this drama. But nothing more has been heard about Dutch government action, on this or indeed on the behaviour of the Dutch super trawler, which is causing havoc in the waters off Australia, heavily subsidised by EU member state taxpayers. Rather, it is the Koreans who are taking the flak. The EJF simply used the transshipment episode as an excuse for grandstanding in Brussels.

Demonstrably, the EU has far too much prestige at stake to take action against its own. With its long-standing reputation for pillaging West-African waters through its own third country fishing deals, and systematic overfishing, it is anxious to look whiter than white as it showboats (to coin a phrase) on the international stage.

Having produced ambitious regulations to control illegal fishing, the EU grandly proclaims that it is a "Contracting Party" to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and has ratified the UN Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the UNCLOS relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks of 4 August 1995 (UN Fish Stocks Agreement).

It has also accepted the Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas of 24 November 1993 of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO Compliance Agreement).

What has triggered all this is that, in 2001, the FAO adopted an "international plan of action" to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. And now the EU has endorsed all this and set its regional fisheries management organisations to establish "an array of measures designed to counteract illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing".

"In line with its international commitments", the EU grandly declared, "and given the scale and urgency of the problem, the Community should substantially enhance its action against IUU fishing and adopt new regulatory measures designed to cover all facets of the phenomenon".

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Nevertheless, it has been noted, Russians, Chinese and EU flagged ships are far more numerous than Korean ships, but somehow have been given a clean bill of health by the EJF – with no action anticipated. Observers note that it would hardly be politically convenient to be banning Russian trade at this time.

As for China, it would never be a good time to rattle Peking's cage and a monitoring organisation paid by the EU is hardly highly motivated to pick on EU-funded fishing vessels. Few such events could be more embarrassing, especially when the taxpayers of EU member states between 2007 to 2013 subsidised these third country raids to the tune of nearly €4.3 billion. An "independent" NGO could not then possibly find that some EU members states were amongst the worst offenders, as they have traditionally been. 

With EU investigators currently in the country - ready to advise Brussels on whether to go ahead with the ban - the Korean national press is thus asking pointed questions about a trade to the EU that was worth $100 billion last year, and the real agenda driving EU actions.

Moon Hae-nam, deputy minister for marine policy in the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, is recorded making diplomatic noises about being a "responsible fishing nation", but notes that being designated an IUU fishing country "is not only an issue for the maritime industry but an issue for Korea's national status". And this is a country where the important of "face" is beyond measurement.

By the end of this month, though, industry observers expect that the EU will have completed its "careful deliberation and objective investigation" and do what it set out to do in the first place – ban S. Korean fishing products. The Commission needs a notch on its gun, and Korea fits the profile. This type of EU response has, after all, been seen before. 

When Guinea was "yellow carded" last year, it bent over backwards to meet every demand made by the EU. But it still became an IUU country in March 2014. The expectations are that the decision regarding Korea has already been made, with the added advantage of removing competition and leaving more for the EU boats.

The final irony though is that the Environmental Justice Foundation set up offices in Sierra Leon to execute its rather selective surveillance contract. But, in supporting its paymasters, it seems, it has not entirely inspired the confidence of the Sierra Leonian government. Sources say that EJF representatives will not have their visas renewed and are about to be asked to leave the country. The EU will have to look elsewhere for the next notch on its gun.


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