January 16, 2019
by Tony Long
Vietnam is due to get a visit from a European Commission delegation in the next few months to see if its fisheries policies pass a legality test and the threat of an outright ban on its seafood products entering the EU market can be lifted. The country is just the latest in a line of 25 fishing nations to feel the weight of the European Union’s yellow and red card warning systems put in place in 2010 to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU).
Introduced under the auspices of the Commission’s DG MARE, illegality is defined in the regulations as any fishing without a license, under-reporting catches, keeping under-sized fish, fishing in closed areas, using prohibited fishing gear types, illegally trans-shipping fish plus the catch-all provision of “violating any other law.” In Vietnam’s case, the Commission’s decision in October 2017 to issue a yellow card cited numerous contraventions, including the failure to control the notorious wooden “blue boats” from venturing into Pacific waters to illegally harvest rare species. All eyes are watching whether Vietnam’s yellow card will be rescinded to green as recently the case with Thailand or, instead, escalated to red similar to the situation in nearby Cambodia.
Big challenges to overcome
Driving illegality out of the fisheries sector is difficult enough in any country. At its most basic, it requires huge awareness-raising efforts amongst officials, fishers and processors which normally would take years to see results. In Vietnam’s case, the challenge is made even more daunting by the size of the fishing fleet itself which is close to 110,000 vessels, the small-scale and family-based nature of much of the fishing activity and the fact that 28 provincial authorities share responsibility along the 3,200-kilometre coastline for implementing new catch recording and licensing measures as well as vessel tracking systems.
But none of these challenges are reasons for inaction. As just about everyone admits, the issuance of a red card would be nothing short of disastrous. According to 2014 data, the fisheries sector represents 7% of Vietnam’s GDP and employs 4.5 million people. The country’s exports of seafood products, including products from the aquaculture sector like shrimp and pangasius, amounted to 3.4 billion euro in the first half of 2018, up 12.3% year on year according to the Vietnamese Association of Seafood Exporters and Processors (VASEP). Currently the EU is fourth among Vietnam’s major seafood export markets behind the US, Japan and China. It is the largest in terms of shrimp, accounting for 18.2% of Vietnamese shrimp exports in 2016. There is a lot riding on getting this right.
Good progress made, more to do
DG MARE sent two inspection teams in May 2018, one technical, the other high-level. It is getting ready to send another to Vietnam around April 2019. What is it likely to find? A clue can be found from a visit of European Parliamentarians to the country in October 2018. In its report the delegation praised efforts by the national government to introduce a new fisheries law due to come into effect this month accompanied by a host of implementing regulations. But the MEPs also expressed concern that monitoring, control and surveillance systems, and the traceability of fisheries products, are all still extremely weak and fragmented. In other words, good progress but must try harder.
There are some deep-rooted structural issues which need to be tackled. Chief among them is the simple fact that Vietnam has too many boats chasing too few fish. Vessel decommissioning to shrink the size of the fleet is clearly essential but that means other sources of employment need to be found for coastal communities if acute economic and social hardship is to be averted.
Wider factors at play
But other complicating factors may well have origins outside the sector altogether. The South China Sea is one of the most politically volatile regions in the world with competing territorial claims being argued fiercely. One consequence is the construction of military airfields on remote coral atolls. The coral habitats essential for fish reproduction are being severely impacted by this construction activity, all of it coming on top of the negative impacts on coral systems from global warming and the associated coral bleaching.
The unstable political situation in the region is not helped by the simmering trade wars unleashed earlier in 2018 between China and the US. Although it is too soon to assess the full effects, it seems probable that Vietnam and other Asian seafood countries will look to increase their sales into the Chinese market to make up for the shortfalls of seafood exports from the US. That could put a dent in EU exports. The potential entry into force of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) in 2019 throws further uncertainty into the current volatile trading patterns.
DG MARE’s carding system is undoubtedly having positive impacts in extending the international rule of law, especially in the notoriously fraught area of ocean management. But as Vietnam grapples with multiple complexities to bring itself into line with new global supply chain requirements, so too a responsibility lies on the European Commission to tackle the challenge of policy coherence across its own activities. DG MARE understandably, and rightly, sees the problem predominantly through a fisheries lens. But it could well be that the solutions will need to be found across a wider canvas. At the very least, the Directorates-General responsible for Trade and Development, as well as the European External Action Service (EEAS), will need to be taking a close look at the upcoming DG MARE-led mission and be ready to lend their support and expertise to help Vietnam’s fledgling moves towards reformed fisheries governance.
Tony Long was formerly Director of the WWF European Policy Office, Brussels. He currently holds theposition of resident senior fellow at the Global Governance Institute, Free University of Brussels (VUB).Daniel Gueguen