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[Lee Jae-min] Time to eradicate IUU fishing

April 16, 2013 - 19:47 By Yu Kun-ha
While largely unnoticed under the stack of North Korea-related news, an alarming and embarrassing report has been released. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce submitted its 2013 report to U.S. Congress, in which it had designated 10 countries as having engaged in IUU fishing activities: Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, Italy, Mexico, Panama, Spain, Tanzania, Venezuela and South Korea.

IUU is an acronym for Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing activities that occur in contravention of the domestic laws and regulation and international guidelines. In other words, the 10 countries in the report are identified as those that are not sufficiently regulating illegal fishing activities conducted by their own nationals and vessels. A potential trade ban against fish stocks from these countries is also being mentioned in the report unless concrete measures are taken by these countries within the next two years. 

The fact that Korea is the only country in the list from East Asia further embarrasses us ― neither China nor Taiwan nor Japan is included in the list although they largely share similar fishing patterns and maritime policies. Likewise, the EU has also registered its concern over Korea’s IUU fishing. So have various NGOs.

As a matter of fact, in the global fisheries community, nothing could carry a more negative connotation than the term “IUU.” It has been one of the top priorities of the U.N.’s FAO, and a significant global effort has been mobilized recently because it has been found to be one of the major culprits of the global depletion of fish stocks: The FAO statistics show that almost 30 percent of global fish catch is done through IUU fishing.

Now, the depletion of fish stocks has become an urgent global issue. Under the current pace of global fishing, the FAO warns that quite a few fish stocks will disappear in the next couple of decades: As of 2008, 1 out of 3 fish stocks are regarded as overexploited, meaning that they are going down the path of depletion.

This sense of urgency also led the global community to include this very issue in the WTO’s DDA negotiations as one of the key negotiation topics, under the theme of fisheries subsidies. And, again, the IUU has been at the center of all these discussions and negotiations. It is all the more troubling to remember that Korea has been one of the most active participants in the fisheries subsidies negotiations, with its vocal criticism of IUU fishing.

Furthermore, IUU fishing has been criticized in terms of the “development” aspect as well. Foreign vessels’ destructive fishing activities with drag nets along the coastal seas of small island states or impoverished countries have been regarded as taking away a critical means of livelihood from them. No wonder least-developed countries have long complained about the IUU vessels flocking their coastal waters to pillage marine resources.

Having realized the negative publicity and embarrassment associated with the IUU fishing activities, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, one of the new ministries created under the new administration, has attempted to respond promptly. It has just issued several policy plans, including proposals to amend relevant statutes to increase penalties for violators. Explanatory materials are also being circulated by the ministry.

Upon careful reading of the report, however, one would realize that the foreign criticism of Korea does not lie in the laws and regulations. Rather, the core problem raised by the foreign watchers relates to the lack of “effective” enforcement of the laws and regulations in force.

As with anything, this can only be achieved through strong willingness of the agency in charge and its officials, with clear policy determination to enforce the laws and regulations as best as they can, so as to eradicate the IUU. One of the best justifications for the resurrection of the new maritime ministry will be to take a serious first step in this direction.

Korea’s inclusion in the U.S. list of countries conducting illegal fishing activities with nine other states is both embarrassing and alarming. Negative publicity aside, it can also lead to a serious trade ban or other types of restriction. More importantly, other watchful countries may follow suit, unless a quick remedial action is taken by Korea. 

By Lee Jae-min 

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at the School of Law, Hanyang University, in Seoul. Formerly he practiced law as an associate attorney with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. ― Ed.