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25th Sep 2022

Commission ready to investigate European illegal fishing off Somalia

  • Commissioner Borg is ready to investigate allegations of European illegal fishing in Somali waters if presented with evidence (Photo: EUobserver)

The European Commission has said it is ready to investigate and take action against any European boats or European-owned fishing companies that fly flags of convenience that engage in illegal fishing off the coast of Somalia.

This month, Abdirahman Ibbi, the deputy prime minister and minister of fisheries and marine resources in the new Somali national unity government, said that an estimated 220 foreign-owned vessels were still engaged in unlicensed and illegal fishing in Somali waters, most of them of European origin.

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The European commissioner for fisheries, Joe Borg, on Wednesday (22 April) told reporters that he had no information regarding Mr Ibbi's allegation.

"I am certainly prepared to look into it if we are provided with specific details on this," he said during a press conference presenting a paper reviewing the state of the European Common Fisheries Policy. "But the information I have is that it is nowhere near close to those figures that have been mentioned."

"But certainly ... if we see that there are any European fishers or European-owned vessels that are operating illegally, there are ways and means whereby ... we can have those vessels blacklisted as illegal, unregulated and unreported [IUU] operators if they are operating illegal fishing."

He said that one way this could be achieved would be via Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) and that the commission had already tried to tackle the issue of tracking down illegal fishing boats near Somali waters at the international level.

"The only pity is that the commission has tried within the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) to introduce such measures [to get the IOTC also to chase down illegal fishers], but it wasn't supported by the majority of partner countries within IOTC over the last couple of weeks."

At the same time, the commissioner said he felt other regions bore a heavier responsibility for illegal fishing in the region.

"I would be the first to say that our fishers are not the major culprits when it comes to IUU fishing."

He added that the commission is working to end illegal fishing in Somali waters and elsewhere: "This problem needs to be addressed," he said, "and we are introducing measures which will come into effect from 1 January 2010 in order to bring about a situation where fish that cannot be certified as legally caught cannot end up on the plates of the European consumer."

Illegal fishing over the last two decades by European boats and European firms that operate boats that fly flags of convenience - when the nationality of the owner is different from the country of registration - as well as the regular dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters by Swiss and Italian companies has been described by analysts and development and green NGOs as the twin root causes of the current piracy crisis.

Spain meanwhile has requested that the issue be discussed at Thursday's meeting of EU fisheries ministers in Luxembourg, although the focus will be more on pirate attacks on fishermen than the history of European illegal fishing in Somali waters. Madrid is to inform the fisheries ministers about recent attacks by Somali pirates on vessels inside the Seychelles fishing zone and northeast of Madagascar.

Cesar Deben, policy director at the EU's maritime affairs directorate, was more critical of the Somali minister's allegation, telling reporters that he had to deal with similar "facile and stupid rumours" in 2008. He said that having checked satellite readings, they had found no EU-flagged ships in Somali waters at the time.

One senior commission official nevertheless said that they had counted 50 to 60 such vessels engaging in illegal activities in the region over the last ten years.

Nevertheless, he conceded that there was indeed a problem in Somali waters with fishing by boats owned by European companies but that fly flags of convenience.

"It's rare that purse seiners do this as they are very large vessels, but there are lots of small longliners that engage in this practice. Lots."

EUobserver reported on Tuesday that illegal fishing by European-owned boats with flags of convenience continues to be reported - particularly by Greek ships. According to the Somali Marine & Coastal Monitor update from April, these vessels belong to the Greek firm Greco Ltd. and have reportedly flown Cambodian and Panamanian flags.

"It's very difficult to deal with this, although new legislation in January will help," the commission official added. "At the same time, there are other, financial, political ways of tackling the problem."

"Once given evidence of this, the commission is ready to take action, indeed we are obliged to do so, but without evidence we can do nothing," he said, placing the ball in the Somali government's court.

Julie Castor, of Oceana, the environmental group that focuses on threats to the sea and that has long been studying illegal fishing in the region, said that it is important that the commission and EU member states distinguish between the EU-flagged illegal fishing, which has indeed declined since the pirate attacks began to explode, and illegal fishing by European-owned vessels that fly flags of convenience, which continues to occur.

She added that her organisation will inform the member state concerned, their coast guard and the commission as well when they come across further instances of illegal fishing in Somali waters to ensure they take action.

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