Members of a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) committee today endorsed a set of voluntary guidelines that target illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) which generate up to $23 billion each year.
The Voluntary Guidelines for Flag State Performance, developed last year through a consultative process led by FAO, aim to cut down on IUU fishing by improving the accountability of flag States - those countries which register fishing vessels and authorize them to fly their flags.
The FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI), which opened its 31st session in Rome on Monday, endorsed today the guidelines, as a "public signal" by countries of their intent to adhere to a shared set of standards for flag state performance, according to the UN agency.
"Today's decision represents a massive breakthrough in combating IUU fishing, which not only puts marine ecosystems at risk but undermines any effort undertaken at the national, regional or international level to manage fisheries in a sustainable manner," said Árni M. Mathiesen, FAO Assistant Director-General for Fisheries and Aquaculture.
"Taken together with FAO's 2009 Agreement on Port State Measures, which works to prevent entry into ports by IUU fishing vessels and therefore block the flow of IUU-caught fish into national and international markets, these guidelines will provide a potent tool to combat IUU fishing in the coming decades," he added.
Flag States are already required to maintain a record of their registered vessels together with information on their authorization to fish, such as the species they may fish for and the type of gear they may use.
However, many fishing vessels engaged in illegal activities circumvent such control measures by "flag hopping" - repeatedly registering with new flag States to dodge detection, which undermines anti-IUU efforts.
The Voluntary Guidelines aim to crack down on this practice, among other things, by promoting greater cooperation and information exchange between countries, so that flag States are in a position to refuse to register vessels that have previously been reported for illegal and unregulated fishing, or that are already registered with another flag State.
The guidelines draw on existing international maritime law as well as international instruments such as the 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement, 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, the 2001 FAO International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate IUU fishing.