February 2001 in the Indian Ocean, off Goa. A suspect vessel is stopped by a fast patrol boat, directed by a plane. A helicopter stands by in case the boat tries to flee. Indian officials are about to perform a cargo inspection. They will arrest the crew or seize the boat if necessary.

It won't be. The boat is part of a demonstration exercise by the Indian coast guard and carries fisheries officials attending a workshop on fisheries monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) organized through an FAO project.

The project, Management for Responsible Fisheries, includes the strengthening of MCS worldwide in order to reduce illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing -- activities that not only harm fish stocks but damage the livelihoods of poor fishing communities and sometimes place legitimate fishers in great danger. The project is part of FAO's FishCode Programme to implement the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, adopted by the FAO Conference, the Organization's governing body, in 1995. One problem addressed under the Code is illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

"Abusive fishing practices take 30 percent of the catch in some important fisheries, and in some high-seas fisheries even larger proportions of the catch may be going unreported," says Eric Reynolds, who coordinates the FishCode Programme at FAO. "Since most major marine fish stocks are already fully exploited, this can't be ignored."

Not just piracy

The fishing activities in question cover more than piracy or poaching, explains Mr Reynolds. A vessel might under-report its catch, or exceed its quota, or use an illegal mesh size. Or it might evade the law altogether. "A vessel fishing far from its own national territory may be breaking its own country's regulations on catch reporting, crew safety and much else besides," he says. "But if it does it under another country's flag, it may not even be illegal -- in theory, because that country may have no such regulations. Or it may have few inspecting facilities and no navy. It might even be landlocked."

At the top of the scale is straightforward poaching. A vessel might put out lines with thousands of hooks to catch tuna, one of the species most affected by poaching. Or a foreign vessel might trawl close to the shores of a country that doesn't have surveillance aircraft. A project operated by a West African regional fisheries commission found that between 1995 and 1998 an average of 16 percent of vessels fishing in waters under its jurisdiction were doing so illegally. This translated into an annual loss of close to US$170 million for its member countries. According to the commission, illegal fishing is a serious and continuing problem in the area.

Poachers are dangerous. They may be armed. And they often fish without lights, running down local fishers.

But in the end it is the theft of the fish that hurts the largest number of people. Poachers often work with industrial-scale vessels, enabling them to catch vast numbers of fish. Meanwhile, the fish is sold in supermarkets in wealthy countries to consumers who do not realize that they are buying food stolen from the poor in regions such as West Africa where fish is the most common source of protein.

Fighting back

Implementing the Code of Conduct is a way of fighting back. With funding from the Government of Norway, FAO developed workshops, training courses and legal advice on monitoring, control and surveillance. The first workshop, for South-East Asia, took place in Malaysia in 1998.

"In that region offshore capture fisheries produce 3-4 million tonnes a year," says FAO fisheries planning expert George Everett, who advises on MCS activities. "But whereas Malaysia has patrol boats that can reach the outer limits of national jurisdiction in three or four hours, other countries have no equipment, and staff lack political support and are intimidated by big-time fishing operators."

Good control measures can be hard to replicate across borders because of administrative differencesbetween countries. In Indonesia, the navy effectively licenses fishing vessels, but in Thailand, the harbour masters do it. And Thailand's laws, designed for inland fisheries, date back to 1947. The FAO project is helping the Government update them. It also advises countries on navigation and inspection techniques. "But sometimes we feel we're only scratching the surface," says Mr Everett.

Many countries are unable to police even their inshore waters, let alone the large areas of their exclusive economic zones that extend up to 200 miles offshore. Where the means are available, enforcement can still be complicated. In April 2001 the Australian authorities spotted the South Tommy working waters under national jurisdiction close to Antarctica, illegally taking Patagonian toothfish -- a very valuable but heavily overfished species. They chased the vessel 4 100 km before arresting it off the Cape of Good Hope. This was a multinational affair -- the vessel was registered in Togo and had a European captain, and the Australians eventually boarded it with assistance from the South African navy.

FAO will continue to help fight illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing through the FishCode Programme, thanks to the ongoing work of the Management for Responsible Fisheries project and a new project that is now getting under way with US funding. This should help protect low-income communities worldwide who not only lose their fish on a vast scale, but whose fishers are exposed to danger night after night. Poachers do not just steal food from the poor. They sometimes kill them too.

5 April 2002