As the Europeans fumble for a red card, Korea is mounting all-out efforts to avoid it. All government agencies are being mobilized to talk the EU out of issuing a red card. The issue at hand is IUU (Illegal, Unreported or Unregulated) fishing, and the EU still seems skeptical of Korea’s plan to eradicate it.
A yellow card was already handed to Korea in November last year when Brussels included Seoul on its preliminary list of IUU fishing countries along with Ghana and Curacao, a Dutch island in the West Indies. Brussels has been of the view that Korean fishing vessels have been engaged in IUU fishing activities while the Korean government has looked the other way. IUU fishing is an illegal fishing activity which is by far the worst type of human maritime behavior universally condemned by the global community. In FAO jargon, IUU is public enemy number one.
The EU delegation’s visit to Korea in mid-June was to confirm if a red card should be issued to Korea for failure to respond to IUU fishing activities. A red card here would mean an import ban for Korean fisheries products and a port entry ban for Korean vessels, a significant blow to the Korean fisheries industry. Furthermore, the negative publicity would be immense: The country will be branded as a hub for destructive fishing. A final decision by the EU will be issued by September this year.
Although largely unknown to the general public, 2013 was the year that set off an alarm for Korean distant water fisheries activities. In January 2013, the United States issued a list of 10 IUU fishing countries including Korea. The EU then followed in November by designating Korea, though preliminarily, as an IUU fishing country along with Ghana and Curacao. Among a dozen or so countries listed on the U.S. and EU lists, Korea is the only major fishing country. By all accounts, Korea’s name just stands out from the pack and cries for attention.
As has been observed by domestic media on the occasion of the EU delegation’s visit ten days ago, the issue is not merely about the possibility of a reduction of exports as a result of an EU import ban. The real and long-lasting damage is the negative image to be imprinted from this final designation of IUU fishing. Few realize how damaging it is to carry the tag of an IUU fishing country. Some NGOs almost treat this activity as on par with modern-day piracy in that it extorts crucial maritime resources from developing countries.
There is no question that IUU fishing is one of the major culprits of the global depletion of fish stocks. It is also absolutely unquestionable that global efforts to combat IUU fishing cannot be delayed any longer. Time is running out fast. Also, it is a pity that Korea has not done its homework since 2011 when this issue first surfaced. No one would dispute the fact that Seoul needs to take this issue seriously and find a way to enforce its laws effectively.
That said, however, it begs a question why Korea is the only major fishing power that has been included on these IUU lists, while other major fishing countries are left out. This is difficult to reconcile with recently released reports that discuss IUU fishing activities of other major fishing countries as well. Merely canvassing anecdotal evidence of IUU fishing of a country followed by some unilateral sanction may not be sufficient to offer an accurate picture of the problem. Rather, a global scheme to detect and eradicate IUU fishing should be explored.
In the meantime, watchers are holding their breath waiting for a final decision from the EU after the recent verification visit. Whatever decision the EU makes will also significantly affect that of the United States.
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is an associate professor of law at Seoul National University. ― Ed.