On World Oceans Day – June 8, 2021 – the government of Belize signed an agreement with Oceana and Global Fishing Watch (GFW) to make its vessel tracking data publicly available on the GFW platform. This newest addition will allow anyone anywhere in the world to monitor Belize’s commercial fishing fleet in near real-time. This victory for transparency is the result of Oceana’s collaboration with the government to enhance its monitoring capacity of Belizean-flagged fishing vessels on the high seas and the waters of other countries.
Despite being a small Central American country, Belize is a known player on the high seas and in other countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones. Belize has long been considered a ‘flag of convenience’ given that a large proportion of its industrial fleet is made up of non-local operators.[i] In fisheries, flags of convenience can be associated with low levels of scrutiny by flag state authorities, often resulting in higher instances of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing among their fleets and lower operational standards.[ii] In 2012, the European Union, consistent with its IUU Regulation, issued Belize a yellow card – warning the country that it was not doing enough to address IUU fishing among its flagged fleet. The following year, Belize received a red card for failing to address the issue. This red carding resulted in a ban on the nation’s exports to the EU.
Following this economic penalty, the government of Belize made decisive improvements in the monitoring and regulation of its flagged vessels on the high seas. Notably, Belize adopted and revised the High Seas Fishing Act of 2013, which established an improved regulatory framework and created the Belize High Seas Fisheries Unit to manage and control Belize’s high-seas fishing fleet. The EU red card was subsequently removed in response to Belize’s legislative and administrative action.
Belize has continued to pursue enforcement measures to ensure high seas vessels carrying its flag – most of which are non-local operators – are not participating in IUU activities. In June 2018, Belize removed its flag from the world’s largest fish factory ship, the Damanzaihao. This vessel was being investigated by Peruvian authorities weeks before on the grounds of suspected illegal fishing activity. Belize removed the vessel’s flag for failing to complete its vessel registration materials appropriately, and for failing to inform Belize of its IUU fishing record.
Adding Belize’s vessel tracking data to the GFW platform will further build on the progress Belize has achieved in the last decade. “By bringing its fishing fleet into the public realm, Belize is paving the way for Caribbean cooperation and setting a global challenge for others to follow suit,” said GFW’s CEO Tony Long.
IUU fishing causes billions of dollars in losses around the world, reduces fish stocks, and jeopardizes marine ecosystems along with the food security and livelihoods of legitimate fisher communities. Like many in other coastal countries, Belize’s small-scale fishers depend on transparent, well regulated, healthy oceans to thrive.
To create abundant oceans, Oceana campaigns to win policy victories that stop overfishing, reduce bycatch, curb pollution, and protect marine habitats and wildlife. But to ensure these policy wins are enforced, we need transparency at sea and effective monitoring. That’s why we at Oceana – in partnership with Google and SkyTruth – co-founded the now-independent Global Fishing Watch in 2016: to provide the first ever publicly accessible global view of commercial fishing. Oceana leverages GFW by working with countries like Belize to make their vessel data available on the platform and by revealing suspicious activity to deter potential IUU fishing.
Last month, Oceana released a new analysis that found hundreds of foreign fishing vessels, primarily Chinese, fishing in the waters off Argentina and disappearing from public tracking systems. These distant-water fleets mainly fish for shortfin squid, which are vital to Argentina’s economy and the diet of numerous commercial and recreational species, such as tuna and swordfish. In September 2020, Oceana published a similar analysis revealing nearly 300 Chinese vessels fishing in the waters off the Galapagos Marine Reserve primarily for squid. One month later and with the Chinese fleet still off their coasts, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia issued a joint statement saying they would work together "to prevent, discourage and jointly confront" any attempts to illegally fish.
Oceana recently put vessels with a history of IUU activity on notice with the launch of an IUU Vessel Tracker this month. This tool allows the public to track vessels that are currently included on the regional fishery management organizations’ (RFMO) IUU fishing vessel lists. As of June 2021, there are 168 vessels listed on RFMOs’ IUU vessel lists.
By continuing to shine a light on these dark parts of our seas, we can better protect and restore ocean abundance.