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Guidelines to Keep Illegally Caught Fish at Bay


In an effort to crack down on the trade in illegally-caught fish, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently proposed a set of recommendations that the organization hopes will become a “gold standard” for global commercial fishing.

In a news release, the FAO reported that “a set of draft Voluntary Guidelines on “Catch Documentation Schemes” had been unanimously adopted by an FAO technical group after five years of negotiations. The guidelines are now poised for adoption by all FAO members at the FAO’s upcoming bi-annual governing conference.

The Purpose of the New Guidelines

The bi-annual meeting is slated for July 3 – 8 in Rome. If FAO members approve the recommended guidelines, those guidelines then can assist both businesses and governments seeking to establish systems that can trace fish from their point of capture to retail purchase – a supply chain that industry insiders refer to as “sea to plate” – to prevent illegally captured ocean fish from flowing into the marketplace.

Although not often reported, the problem of illegally caught fish is far from trivial. Of the 90+ million tons of ocean fish caught each year, an estimated 26 million tons – or nearly 30 percent – are illegally caught, often harming marine ecosystems while sabotaging efforts to maintain sustainable fisheries.

How the New Guidelines Can Help

Catch Documentation Schemes (CDS) like those encouraged by the proposed guidelines work to reduce the illegal fish trade through rigorous government certification. Specifically, national authorities must certify shipments of fish as being caught legally and in accord with best practices.

A certified hard-copy agreement accompanies the fish shipments throughout the entire supply chain, both internationally and intra-nationally. Only those fish shipments accompanied by valid documentation can be traded or exported to markets where CDS requirements are present.

Until now, very few such CDS regimes had been established, and even these focused mainly on a narrow subset of ocean fish, particularly over-exploited high-value water species like Chilean Sea Bass harvested in the Atlantic or Antarctic waters and the Southern Bluefin Tuna.

But changes could be forthcoming soon. Already, the European Union maintains a CDS system, which it has operated since 2010, and the United States announced its own CDS regime in 2016. With the seafood trade reaching an all-time high due to the rising consumer demand, the FAO’s guidelines could not be more timely.