Spyglass: keeping track of fishing crimes at sea

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing poses a serious threat to marine ecosystems and the livelihoods of coastal communities. The nature of the problem makes it particularly difficult to tackle, especially as it often happens on the high seas, where there is often no authority capable of monitoring or intervening. It may otherwise happen in the national waters of countries where corrupt officials sell fishing licenses to boats that should be banned due to their past record of involvement with IUU activity. According to the FAO, the annual catch associated with IUU fishing may be as high as 26 million tons, which would represent almost a third of the total worldwide catch.

Despite the enormity and complexity of the issue, the wide alliance of the Slow Fish network knows we cannot simply leave it to large institutions to do all the work: independent initiatives from civil society are a vital part of our collective response. In that regard, the launch of the new Spyglass platform, engineered by Dyhia Belhabib, is a welcome development. Dyhia is the principal investigator on fisheries for Ecotrust Canada—a Slow Fish partner organization, and she has been working to increase transparency in the fishing sector for many years. With this new project she aims to create a world map of infractions by fishing vessels enriched by open collaboration. We spoke to Dyhia to get the full picture.

Slow Food: So what is IUU fishing, and how did you become interested in it?
Dyhia Belhabib: Any infraction at sea by a fishing vessel linked to a fishing operation. It could be a boat operating without a license, the use of illegal or prohibited gear to catch fish, or fishing in closed areas or times. It’s part of the broader issue of fisheries crimes, including everything else illegal that may happen onboard a fishing vessel, like human trafficking or smuggling. After studying as a marine biologist in Algeria, I realized that I was actually more interested in the people involved in fishing, as opposed to the fish themselves. The importance of managing fisheries not only for the health of ecosystems, but also in order to ensure a livelihood for coastal communities became more and more apparent.

spyglass founder
Photo: spyglass.fish

Your work focuses in particular on Africa.
My PhD covered the entire west coast of Africa, considered a hotspot for IUU fishing, though there is something of a spotlight effect. It’s true that incursions into zones reserved for artisanal fishing are more likely to be committed by ships flagged as African. However, there are some regions of the world with worse trafficking problems, like Southeast Asia. While the west coast of Canada has more infractions of a quota-related nature.

I think one of the important ideas behind Spyglass, which may be particularly relevant to infractions in African waters, is the difference between criminality and criminalization. There are situations where innocent people who made honest mistakes are criminalized; not everybody caught in an infraction is a hardened criminal. And while it’s important to denounce criminality where it’s deliberate, we also want to share the stories of fishers who have been convicted of crimes and since changed their practices. It’s important to decriminalize them as it can help motivate other fishers to be more aware of the boundaries between legal and illegal fishing, and how to avoid crossing them. Some people are also driven to these behaviors because of lack of choice. We need to put ourselves in the shoes of small-scale fishers who need to feed families and communities. It’s not the same as wholesale organized criminality, and it’s important we recognize that.

In Europe, there seems to be an effort to shift the blame for IUU fishing, particularly toward China.
The global blame-shifting game goes around in circles. The European media may find it tempting to blame China for overfishing and other fisheries crimes. China can then point the finger at the United States, who in turn may blame the European fleet. The truth is, they’re all guilty. There are some interesting differences in the kinds of IUU-related infractions that vessels from different countries are more likely to commit. Chinese vessels are more likely to fish without proper licenses, for example, while Spanish vessels tend to shut down their Automatic Identification System satellite to avoid detection. There are others who may deliberately get a license from one country where obtaining one is considered relatively easy, then go fishing in the waters of neighboring countries. In the grand scheme of things, the result is the same; no matter which country’s fishing fleet is responsible: fish stocks are subtracted from the small-scale fishers of coastal communities.

So how did Spyglass come to be, and what’s the goal of the project?
Spyglass is a platform for information sharing. It has been online for a few weeks now, but I’ve been working on it for couple of years. This database of the criminal records of fishing vessels is independent, and I started collecting the data in 2016. It aims to tackle opacity and the lack of data sharing that benefits IUU fishing. Because right now, it’s relatively easy for a vessel with a criminal history in, for example, Chile, to request a license in a smaller country in Africa and get it. Vessels charged with human rights violations in Tanzania may end up operating in Mauritanian waters. The bureaucratic processes are heavy and take a long time to enact, so it’s more important than ever that people are able to share information promptly.

It’s important to note that this is not the first project of its kind. Greenpeace launched an “IUU blacklist” back in 2008, though it is no longer online. And Trygg Mat Tracking combines the lists of vessels blacklisted by regional fisheries management organizations. However, for each vessel blacklisted, which requires multiple rounds of negotiations at the regional level, dozens or even hundreds go unlisted. There are other lists out there too, but there are either incomplete, out of date or not publicly accessible. The difference with Spyglass is that we invite submissions from the public. I would like small-scale fishers to know they have a voice, and that this can be transformed into a visible, accessible online platform. We want them to know they’re not alone. Furthermore, I’d like Spyglass to become a reference for authorities so high-risk vessels are not granted licenses.

One of the major problems in fighting back against IUU fishing is the cost of catching the offenders, which is currently estimated at around $5000 per infraction. If we have a targeted, public monitoring system, the cost of catching offenders would be reduced.

spyglass. slow fish
Infographic: Valentina Ruiz Leotaud / seaaroundus.org

Are there reasons to be optimistic about our prospects?
Absolutely. Since I’ve been working on fisheries there have been significant improvements in the policies of several countries in West Africa. Guinea for example, has gone from being something of a black hole of IUU fishing to a champion in terms of intervention and prevention. Senegal too, has gone from a position of denial of any infractions in their waters to recognizing and actively combating the issue. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia is also making progress in tackling illegal fishing.

What’s one thing you would like to communicate to normal consumers about the fishing industry?
One important thing is to eat local, or at least traceable fish. It’s important to know where our fish is coming from. Then there’s the choice of which fish to buy: sardines, anchovies and herring are all much better than tuna. And we need to recognize that in many cases fish farming is unethical and environmentally unsustainable. Take farmed salmon for example, which is raised on fishmeal. Where does that fishmeal come from? Largely from sardinella, which is heavily consumed in Africa, comprising 70% of the annual protein intake in some areas. It’s the cheapest protein they have, and we’re taking it away from them to feed it to farmed salmon. It’s an enormous waste. For each kilo of farmed salmon we produce, we waste four kilograms of sardinella that could have fed four households. That’s a crime in itself. And we should refuse to be part of it.

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