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Taiwan’s Illegal Fishing Is ‘Out of Control’

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Taiwan’s Illegal Fishing Is ‘Out of Control’

Illegal fishing has Taiwan facing a ban on seafood exports to the EU.

Taiwan’s Illegal Fishing Is ‘Out of Control’

Fishermen on board a boat docked at Sinda Fishing Port prepare to unload their catch.

Credit: Image via Shi Yali /

The Taiwanese fleet of longline tuna vessels is the largest in the world, supplying the world’s largest seafood companies, such as the Thai Union. But the industry is fraught with illegal activities, both in fishing and labor practices. Nudged into action by a threatened ban on exports to the European Union, the Taiwanese government has been trying to address the issue of illegal fishing.

A year-long Greenpeace investigation found that Taiwan’s tuna fishing industry is “out of control” – citing evidence for persistent shark finning, illegal tuna fishing, and forced labor and human rights abuses at sea. But more importantly, the investigative report criticizes the Taiwanese government, stating that Taiwan “knows these issues exist, [but] does little to address them despite domestic and international requirements.”

Last year, in October 2015, the European Union slapped Taiwan with a “yellow card” for not taking sufficient measures to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, after holding a dialogue with Taiwan on the issue since 2012. In particular, it pointed to Taiwan’s inadequate monitoring, control, and surveillance of long-distance fleets, the EU said in a press release. The EU has been cracking down on illegal fishing since 2010. At least 15 percent of world catches were caught illegally, amounting to 10 billion euros ($11.3 billion) per year, the EU reiterates in their press release.

Taiwan has been struggling to combat IUU fishing and implement effective regulation following international pressure on its longline tuna fleet in the 2000s. But monitoring and vessel licensing remained less stringent and effective on smaller, often family-run, longline vessels. While Taiwan was the first in Asia to fully ban shark finning, not much has changed on the high seas due to ineffective enforcement and an inadequate deterrent of investigations and penalties, as the Greenpeace report intends to demonstrate – the investigation, which took place in just one port, identified at least 16 illegal shark-finning cases in three months.

Over the course of the investigation, Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior caught a Taiwanese long-distance vessel in September 2015, the Sheun De Ching No. 888, illegally fishing for tuna. Upon boarding the vessel, Greenpeace discovered a load of shark fins that were detached from the shark’s bodies (which presumably were thrown back into sea). Log books were window-dressed to misrepresent the vessel’s catch. The Sheun De Ching No. 888 was only “the tip of the iceberg,” says Renee Chou, communication officer for Greenpeace’s Taiwan office. “It goes to show how difficult it is to control fishing in the High Seas.”

But that was not all. Like in the high-profile uncovering of the Thai fishing industry a year ago, the Greenpeace report documents that human rights abuses, forced labor, and human trafficking are equally existent in the Taiwanese longline fishing fleet. “Thailand is unique in terms of the architectural depth and scale of the abuse where the entire fishing fleet was effectively being staffed by migrant labor, and hence the abuses were much more prevalent,” says Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation.

But the Taiwanese fishing industry is fraught with abuse as well. “They would beat everyone. They did not feed us regularly. They would pull you and hit you. With a bicycle pump until your head will bleed,” states an account of an interview with a fishermen in the Greenpeace report. A lot of fishermen worked up to 22 hours each day, and would see little to nothing of the money they worked so hard for, the report says.

However, the yellow card given to Taiwan by the EU only concerned combating IUU fishing, and it gave Taiwan six months to improve their legal framework and take measures. Those six months have passed, and Taiwan has not yet received a “red card” – which would entail Taiwan being banned from exporting seafood to the EU, a trade that was worth 14 million EUR ($15.8 million) in 2014.

Taiwan may have averted the EU’s “red card” as it was nudged into action last October to improve their legal framework and seek better regional cooperation to combat IUU fishing. In March, just before the end of the six-month period since the yellow card, the Executive Yuan passed a draft bill (Regulations on Distant Fisheries) and a revision to an existing fishery law in an attempt to address the EU’s legal concerns. Among the key features of these draft bills are the requirement that all vessels install a vessel monitoring system and report back daily on catches, keep a digital log book, and obtain a permit before landing their catch. In addition, penalties for IUU activities will substantially be increased.

It was about time Taiwan addressed its legal framework, argues Greenpeace. The Fisheries Act is outdated — it dates back to 1930, with only a few revisions over the past century. But the problem, says Chou of Greenpeace, is that the new legislation may “motivate fishermen to just register in other countries to avoid the new more stringent laws.” But, she adds, the EU is also aware of this and Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency may have to find a way to prevent this.

The minister for the Council of Agriculture, Chen Chih-ching, reportedly said it is impossible to pass and implement these bills before the EU’s initial deadline, but that the EU would extend the deadline by another six months if they approve progress made.

Taiwan has also been entering, or talking about entering, into Memoranda of Understanding with other countries in the region, such as Thailand, Japan, and the Philippines. Thailand’s Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister, General Chatchai Sarikulya, said the agreement focuses on tuna fishing, where both countries will share information on fishing licenses, boat registration, and landfalls.

Regional cooperation would not only enhance effective enforcement, it would also address some of the tensions caused by fishing incidents. A few weeks ago, Indonesia, which has taken a tough and violent stance to combat IUU fishing, fired at a Taiwanese vessel suspected of illegally fishing for tuna within Indonesia’s waters. “With overlapping EEZs and traditional fishing grounds, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Japan are the main three countries [with which] Taiwan coastal fishermen usually have a conflict, encountering pirate or cross-zone fishing,” says Fay Lee of Greenpeace.

But, to Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation, regional cooperation is only as good as its weakest spot, as fishermen may move to different jurisdictions. The key to successful enforcement, he says, is to start by implementing a digitized system where certificates and licenses are kept in a database so they can easily be shared and mined for data, as well as requiring vessels to digitize their log books and adopt robust and standardized vessel monitoring systems. “Five to ten years ago it would be disproportionate to require these technologies to be installed, but now they cost only a few hundred dollars,” he says. “Bear in mind their catch is often worth millions of dollars.”

Effective enforcement is perhaps a bigger problem in Taiwan than its legal framework. After the discovery of the Sheun De Ching No. 888’s illegal fishing activities, the Fisheries Agency merely imposed a license suspension of 12 months and a fine of $4,623 – insufficient to deter illegal fishing, Greenpeace argues. In a report released on April 14, Greenpeace states that the evidence suggests the Fisheries Agency’s investigation was inadequate and superficial, “inferring that, despite the presence of an EU yellow card, its controls are inadequate, violations, breaches and crimes may be ignored or swept under the carpet.” It “leaves the world with the impression that in Taiwanese fisheries, crime pays.”

These enforcement measures, and the ban on trans-shipment at sea that the Taiwan has now also proposed to implement, would also make a great difference to combat human rights abuses at sea. “There are a few very basic measures, in our view, that would transform the reputation and the practical responses of the abuse that is taking place at sea,” says Trent. “It is not rocket science,” he says, “but what often lacks is political will.” The IUU fishing and labor rights abuses go hand-in-hand, and cracking down on the former will have a positive effect on the latter.

The EU’s yellow-carding system may ultimately be effective in the Pacific region – as it forces countries to make strides in improving both the legal framework and their monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. It “is Europe at its best,” according to Trent. The EU is “exporting best practice, showing leadership on a global scale; it is leveraging the power of the world’s largest market place to deliver sustainability and indeed improve human rights abuses,” he says.

The owners of these longliner vessels are the obvious losers of this dynamic. Taiwan’s fishing industry has reportedly asked the Taiwanese government to stand up against the EU. But if they want to keep one of their biggest export markets open, it is in their interest to comply with EU regulations and stay within the lines of the new more stringent laws.