Sustainable Fisheries in Southeast Asia: A Long Way to Go

By Fadilah Rahma (Picture: Blue Growth)

The fisheries industry plays a vital role in the ASEAN economy. The region has been a significant producer of fish and other fish products, where it accounted for a quarter of fish production globally. It has also served as a vital source and a key contributor to rural livelihood, export revenue for several billion dollars in GDP, and even the food security for the region. However, its significance does not always result in a good cause. The hurdle insists, such as the problem of Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing that still happens region-wide. More than that, the human rights issue that has been lingering among the workers in the fishing industry, especially migrant workers, is another issue that subsists in the region for decades. Still, there is very little progress in addressing them despite the demand and supply in the industry that is growing substantially.

 

A windy, and rocky road to sustainability

IUU is a notable threat to the exploitation of the world’s fisheries resources, which attributes to many problems that lie within in achieving sustainable fishers. As one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, ASEAN is in a vulnerable state. Threatened by overfishing and destructive fishing, the data shows that 64 percent of the fisheries’ resource base in the region is at a medium to high risk, affecting Cambodia and the Philippines the most.

The  Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Index, as an index that benchmark countries according to both of their exposure and response to the problem of IUU, showing that four of the ASEAN member states include in the ten worst performing countries for coastal state responsibility, with Vietnam as the worst. While the maps, ranking tables, and country profiles on the IUU Fishing Index in 2019 provide indicator scores for all individual countries for different combinations of indicator groups, Indonesia and Cambodia are in the particular concern on all features. Both are part of the ten worst-performing countries in regards to two out of three indicator types.

Some ASEAN member states were also facing trouble because of its pervasive problem to the extent of external trade. Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines have been given yellow cards from the European Commission in the past related to its poor fishing industry standards. It was revoked in January 2019 for Thailand and the Philippines, with Vietnam is at the pre-identification phase measure.

However, the problem does not end there. The lack of supervision, law enforcement, and management in the industry causes another major problem: the human rights violations that happened almost for years, and IUU is inextricably associated with the mater. Just about this year, in May 2020, the fishing industry has again raised concern about its working standard and conditions as a video allegedly showing Chinese sailors throwing a body overboard, which went viral. The victim was later found as an Indonesian migrant fishery worker. It is, of course, not only the problem of the affected countries, because historically speaking, ASEAN member states have a similar case that has not been settled thoroughly. For example, Thailand has been heavily criticized following reports of human and labor rights abuses in the fishing industry that happened in the region. The 2015 Benjina case also proved that there is still a failure of the regional mechanism, in combating the challenges.

 

An urgent need: regional collective action in the fishing industry

Achieving sustainable fisheries is not easy, of course. As it involves a major trans-boundary crime such as IUU and human rights abuses, ASEAN definitely needs a collective action done by its all member states. The weak law enforcement of fishing regulations, the lack of supervision among the regions, and the poor coordination on collective management fisheries are some of the homework that needs to be addressed.

So far, the actions that have been done by ASEAN are not yet enough, with very little progress has been made. The member states have pledged to enhance sustainable fishing through the ASEAN-Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) on regional cooperation forum in Thailand in 2016. But the implementation does not come with no challenge. From the violators that range from small scale actors to large-scale enterprises in the region, the excessive demands on the sectors have helped to sustain the practice of IUU, and maritime jurisdiction becomes tricky to address the problem. A further step has to be made, such as a synchronization of the national plans among the member states regarding the fisheries policies.

Other than that, the commitment among the member states to ensure the safety of the migrant fisheries worker also has not been declared collectively. For example, the convention of ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention C18, that addresses the major issues affecting workers on board fishing vessels, such as occupational safety and health, rest periods, written contracts, and social security protection is not yet ratified by most of ASEAN member states. Only Thailand is set to become the first country in ASEAN to ratify the convention.

To achieve the sustainable fisheries that are set to accomplish by at least in 2025, ASEAN can do better by adopting more science-based knowledge of the region’s marine ecosystem to help them having a strategic regional marine policy. Together, the member states can work side by side to combat IUU and human rights abuse as the problems can not be done unilaterally. Delaying the matters is the same as putting the life of migrant fisheries workers and our biodiversity in jeopardy, and we do not need any more victims to be sacrificed for the sake of fulfilling the demands in the industry.

Fadilah Rahma Nur R is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada, and currently is an intern under the program division at ASEAN Studies Center UGM. She is interested in environmental, animal welfare, and sustainability issues, mainly in Southeast Asia.

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