China is key to closing ports to illegally caught fish

The world’s fishing superpower is set to ratify the Port State Measures Agreement in 2020

US Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau steams alongside the Chinese Coast Guard vessel 2102 as they transfer custody of the fishing vessel Yin Yuan detained for illegal fishing. (Source: Alamy)

The United Nations has a straightforward solution to the illegal fishing that is decimating marine life and pushing some species toward extinction: close the world’s ports to vessels engaged in the US$23 billion black market.

Deprived of safe harbours to offload their illicit cargo, the economic incentive to plunder the seas would begin to evaporate. That’s the idea behind the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), which came into effect in June 2016 and requires participating nations to restrict entry of foreign fishing vessels to designated ports.

What is the Port State Measures Agreement?


A UN treaty requiring countries to close their ports to illegal fishing vessels, and to share real-time information to make that possible.

Before allowing them to dock, countries must verify where the ship is registered, conduct inspections and take other actions to ensure they are not transporting illegally caught fish. That information is to be shared in real time among port states, casting an electronic net over pirate ships.

But for this remedy to this tragedy of the aquatic commons to be effective, all coastal countries must join the PSMA and enforce its provisions. Otherwise, rogue vessels would likely still be able to find ports of call to get illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) seafood to market. To date, 61 nations plus the European Union have ratified the PSMA. That leaves 78 coastal nations not signed up, including the world’s fishing superpower – China.

China deploys the world’s biggest fishing fleet and catches the most fish. It also operates 14 of the 15 busiest ports, according to a study ranking the risk of illegally caught fish passing through the biggest ports.

“Obviously, China is an important player,” says Dawn Borg Costanzi, an officer with the Pew international fisheries programme in the United Kingdom. “Neighbouring countries have already signed up to the PSMA so we need to close off the remaining gap as it’s important that they cannot look to China as a lax port they can enter with their IUU-caught fish.”

She noted that China’s participation is crucial for another reason.

The PSMA, which is administered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), mandates that countries require vessels that fly their flag to submit to port inspections. If a port state denies a ship entry because of suspected illegal fishing, it must notify the flag state – the country where the vessel is registered. If the flag state is a party to the PSMA, that country then has the duty to investigate the vessel and, if it finds evidence of illicit fishing, take action to penalise the ship, such as by levying fines or revoking its registration.

The flag state must then report the result of that investigation and the actions it has taken to the FAO, relevant port states and regional fisheries management organisations.

With nearly 3,000 vessels, China’s overseas fleet is the world’s largest. “So having China even as a flag state is important for things like information exchange and inspection of Chinese vessels in other ports subject to the Port State Measure Agreement,” says Borg Costanzi.

China's distant water fishing fleet (1985-2013)

The port study, which was conducted with financial support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, ranked China as among the countries most at risk of illegal fishing vessels passing through its ports. That’s both due to the volume of foreign-flagged ships and a lack of internal controls designed to detect illegal fishing.

“Surely it will be helpful for combating IUU fishing worldwide if China joins and implements the PSMA,” says Tang Yi, dean of the College of Marine Culture and Law at Shanghai Ocean University.

He says he expects China to ratify the PSMA “no later than 2020.”

“I actually know that the Fisheries Bureau of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, which is the central government agency in charge of fisheries in China, is trying its best to promote China’s accession to the agreement,” he wrote in an email from New York City, where he was attending the UN negotiations to draft a treaty to protect the biodiversity of the high seas.

“Before China is ready to join the PSMA, the coordination mechanism between the fisheries agency and the maritime agency and the custom sector must be established,” he adds. “The possible ports [that] could be designated for the… entrance of the vessels not entitled to fly China’s flag are managed by the maritime agency.”

Coordination between the various agencies within countries with jurisdiction over fishing is one obstacle to the implementation of the PSMA. Another is the creation of an electronic information mechanism to share port inspection data in real time to prevent ships denied entry in one country from going “port shopping” in others.

“So far it’s still a challenge for port states to get in contact with some of the flag states to validate the information the vessels are providing,” notes Borg Costanzi. “When a port state finds something amiss, it’s not easy for other port states to know if the vessel shows up in their ports.”

A prototype of an online information-sharing system is set to be unveiled in May 2020.

Developing countries – particularly small island states – face financial challenges in implementing the PSMA, though the agreement does provide for the provision of resources to help those nations develop inspection and data systems.

According to the FAO, 40 countries are receiving assistance and US$15.5 million has been allocated to 10 current projects to build the capacity of developing nations to carry out the PSMA.

A white paper issued in May by Stanford University’s Centre for Ocean Solutions and the World Economic Forum concluded that: “Transitioning historically secretive and paper-based systems to ones that support near real-time data sharing … is central to the PSMA’s effectiveness.”

So far, the pace of that transition is slowing the rollout of the PSMA, according to lead author Annie Brett. “Despite the PSMA’s increasing number of ratifications, there remain significant questions about how the agreement’s mandates to collect fisheries data and facilitate data sharing between countries can be carried out” she wrote in the paper.

Brett notes that some of the regional fisheries management organisations have already implemented electronic information systems that could serve as a model for the PSMA. The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, for instance, operates a technology platform that allows its 32 member states to share data in real time.

Given the ongoing implementation of the PMSA, experts say it’s difficult to assess the agreement’s impact on illegal fishing to date. But when the Pew-funded researchers analysed 14 ports – two from each of the FAO’s seven geographical regions – they found that only three countries had legally identified ports for the entry of overseas fishing vessels.

Records of previous vessel visits could be found at only four ports. Ten ports, however, have put into effect the PMSA requirement that foreign fishing vessels provide advance notification before entering a harbour and only do so after receiving authorisation.

Jose Graziano da Silva, who recently stepped down as director-general of the FAO, has noted the rapid adoption of the PSMA, with 100 countries so far pledging to join the accord.

“The PSMA is only as strong as the number of ports it closes to IUU fishing; these numbers are crucial,” he said in a statement earlier this year. “When you consider that the parties to the PSMA comprise over 50% of total coastal states globally, this is a remarkable achievement in such a short time.”