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Catch Documentation Schemes: Practices and applicability in combating IUU fishing

Introduction: IUU fishing and CDS systems

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is not a simple challenge. What act or action constitutes IUU fishing, and what does not? In general, IUU fishing is often complex, making it difficult to define. Owing to its multi-dimensional, illegal and concealed nature, IUU fishing is also difficult to quantify. We do know however, that IUU fishing is systemic in many fisheries worldwide, and it has been shown that the weaker the governance of a country, the likelier and more serious the incidence of IUU fishing. IUU fishing is one of the key challenges to be overcome in order to achieve sustainably managed fisheries.

Catch documentation schemes (CDS) are market-related measures that have been developed specifically to combat IUU fishing. An official definition is as follows:

"A system that tracks and traces fish from the point of capture through unloading and throughout the supply chain. A CDS records and certifies information that identifies the origin of fish caught and ensures they were harvested in a manner consistent with relevant national, regional and international conservation and management measures. The objective of the CDS is to combat IUU fishing by limiting access of IUU fish and fishery products to markets."
(Report of the Expert Consultation on Catch documentation Schemes, FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Report No. 1120, July 2015)

This positions a CDS as a market-based Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) tool, which can be applied by Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMO), individual countries, or regional economic blocks, such as the EU.

Existing CDS schemes

There are two fundamentally different types of CDS in operation today. The first type, which covers the initial CDS that were developed and deployed, are so-called multilateral schemes and have been put in place by RFMOs.

This first type of CDS in existence includes:

  • A CDS covering two species of Toothfish (or Chilean Seabass) harvested in Antarctic waters, introduced in 2000 by the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)
  • A CDS covering Atlantic Bluefin tuna, introduced in 2008 by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)
  • A CDS covering Southern Bluefin tuna, introduced in 2010 by the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT)

While the CCAMLR CDS may now claim to be reaching "adulthood", both tuna CDS are still fairly recent.

The second type of CDS is the unilateral type, which is put in place by a single country (or union of countries). There is only one single such scheme in existence today, the EU's Catch Certification Scheme introduced in 2008 through the so-called EU IUU Regulation, and implemented as of January 2010. The EU CDS covers all marine wild caught fish (with some minor exemptions) traded by non-EU countries into the EU market.

The USA is in the process of developing its own CDS, most details of which remain to be revealed. However, it would appear that it will differ markedly from the EU scheme, in that it will only target "at-risk" fisheries, and thus the US CDS is unlikely to apply to all wild capture seafood imported into the USA.

Multilateral versus unilateral schemes and implications

The design of the two models is fundamentally different. RFMO CDS are based on RFMO rules, which have the standing of international law. They are technically understood to embody multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). RFMO CDS, once in place, must be followed and complied with by any and all parties participating in the fishing, the processing and the trading of these resources. This means that an RFMO CDS is applied to the entire stock or species under the RFMO's management mandate, and certificates issued under the scheme must accompany all products along all supply chain stops, all the way into end-markets. Through this mode of action, the entire stock covered by the CDS benefits from the protection conferred by the scheme. The CDS is therefore an integral management tool within the suite of conservation and management measures put in place by the RFMO to manage the fishery.

In contrast, the unilateral CDS regulates primarily what may enter into an end-market, not how or what comes out of a fishery. Based on national law, the unilateral CDS can only propose rules for those products that enter its market. Compliance with rules is established by looking backwards into the supply chain by trying to determine whether products have been harvested in accordance to national, regional or international rules, at the point in time when products arrive at the border. This back-tracing process implies that verifiable traceability in these systems must be very solid in order for the back-tracing to be meaningful and achievable. Unilateral schemes do not cover all fish harvested in any given fishery, only the fraction traded into (or through) their market.

A sanctioning procedure is also enshrined within the EU IUU Regulation, and this procedure has received most attention since its first use towards the end of 2012. This is the so-called "identification procedure", through which the EU Commission may identify any non-EU country as "non-cooperating". This status may be conferred to any country for any perceived shortcoming in living up to its international obligations – specifically from a flag State perspective – including (but not limited to) non-compliance with the EU CDS. This process is now widely referred to as the EU's "yellow and red card system". A country stands warned at receiving a yellow card, and if no satisfactory change occurs within a specified period of time, it may be red carded. The red card implies that a trade embargo on seafood products from such a country – in its capacity as a flag State – is enacted, and that no products originating from its vessels may be exported to the EU anymore. This procedure is technically separate from the CDS, and a large number of countries that have been yellow carded to date have not been identified for any established shortcoming in complying with the CDS rules. 

Evidence for impacts of CDS systems on IUU fishing 

In the ICCAT and CCSBT Bluefin tuna fisheries where CDS systems were implemented, IUU fishing related chiefly to endemic underreporting by otherwise legal operators. Ten years ago, many researchers thought that both Atlantic and Southern Bluefin tuna species were evolving at the edge of stock collapse. The amounts of underreporting by regular ICCAT Members were sometimes estimated to exceed by more than triple the official allocated quota.

It is thought that the endemic underreporting in both Bluefin fisheries has been scaled back to the largest extent since the coming into force of the two tuna CDS. Strong scientific evidence that the IUU catch of the Eastern Atlantic Bluefin stock dropped sharply after 2008, and that catches fell in line with TACs has been provided by ICCAT's Standing Committee on Research and Statistics in late 2014. While other novel management and control measures were also introduced in ICCAT and CCSBT before and since CDS introduction, the CDS is the most effective enforcement mechanism capable of directly targeting and eliminating underreporting.

In CCAMLR, IUU fishing for Toothfish in the Convention Area by non-licensed "pirate" vessels was the most pressing issue, and IUU incidence in the late nineties was estimated to exceed official catches by more than double before the putting in place of the CDS.

In 2015, the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators (COLTO) estimated the fraction of IUU catch to be 6% of the total annual harvest, crediting the CDS as one of a mix of effective enforcement actions instrumental in achieving this result.

If the EU IUU Regulation was effective in eliminating IUU fish from entering its market, important changes in trade patterns would likely have occurred since its entry into force. Some analysts believe that up to a third of imports – an estimate of how much IUU fish was entering the EU at the time of launching its CDS – would have been substituted by either similar products from other sources, or some product categories would have been gradually substituted for other categories altogether.

Based on the analysis of trade statistics and discussions with EU traders and Member States authorities, a study commissioned by the EU Commission published in 2014 found that no significant impact on trade in relation with the IUU Regulation could be detected. This finding suggests that the expected effect of the CDS may have remained elusive, and that levels of illegal fisheries products similar to previous levels continue to enter the EU market.

With regards to red carding third countries, some believe that the potential for positive impact is possibly greater than that of the current CDS. This is especially true for countries that are generally understood to be a part of the IUU fishing problem and that export significant amounts of seafood to the EU market. If lenient flag States amongst major producer countries can be coerced into becoming more responsible through trade restrictive measures, the overall impact could be important. In recent years, the potentially positive impacts of improved flag State performance through EU action have been highlighted by a number of NGOs, researchers and the EU Commission itself, though little conclusive evidence as to these impacts exist at the present time.

To date, 20 countries have formally been yellow carded by the EU, 4 of which have had trade sanctions imposed (red card). Thailand is the most important processing nation that remains under a yellow card, and for which the yellow card status was extended by another six months in early 2016. Overall, out of the 20 countries yellow carded to date, 8 countries had no established seafood trade with the EU at the time of yellow carding. It is unclear how trade measures applied in this way can effectively contribute to reducing the importation of IUU-derived fisheries products into the EU – which is the stated objective of the EU IUU Regulation. Of the three countries currently red carded, two were not trading seafood into the EU prior to their identification. Within the first group of eight yellow carded countries, no issue of non-compliance with the EU CDS has been raised. In this group, all raised issues related to other perceived failures of the flag State to honor its responsibilities under international fisheries law.


Ultimately, the putting in place of unilateral CDS that denies IUU products market access will imply that third countries must make important investments to abide with new – and now multiplying – unilateral frameworks. As a result, instead of making changes, third countries may instead increasingly sell questionable products to more lenient and accommodating market States. This unintended consequence highlights the inherently multilateral nature of IUU fishing, supply chains and global trade.

Therefore, in terms of sustainable resource management, direct positive impacts of unilateral CDS may only be achieved – potentially – for resources where the market operating the CDS also controls the largest share of the import market for a specific resource.

Multilateral CDS, on the other hand, are full-fledged fisheries management tools applying to entire stock units, and which, if well designed and consistently applied, have shown to be capable of largely eliminating given forms of IUU fishing, and contributing directly (and measurably) to stock recovery – or stock protection from IUU fishing – in a relatively short time.

It is hence of essence that the international community vigorously pursue discussions on how to expand multilateral CDS systems as a means to effectively combat IUU fishing – in line with positions advocated in both the Code of Conduct and the IPOA-IUU – with the understanding and supporting evidence that multilateral challenges are tackled most successfully through multilateral approaches and solutions.


Article by Gilles Hosch, expert in traceability and certification in the seafood industry 

The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of FAO

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