Illegal fishing activities conducted by Vietnamese vessels have spiked during the first six months of 2022, with most boats caught encroaching into the waters of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing has long been a conundrum for Vietnam. In October 2017, the country was issued with a “yellow card” by the European Commission (EC) to signal a judgement that Vietnam had made inadequate efforts to combat the practice.
IUU fishing is prevalent in Vietnam for a variety of reasons: catches can bring huge profits to fishers who tend to lack economic opportunities; marine resources in local waters have been depleted, driving Vietnamese fishers into foreign waters; and weak monitoring and legal enforcement allow IUU fishing to flourish. As a result, IUU fishing is widely regarded as a “low-risk, high-return activity”.
Vietnam should consider learning from its neighbour, Thailand, who was yellow carded by the EC in April 2015.
Almost five years after the EC’s yellow card, it’s time for the Vietnamese government and Directorate of Fisheries (D-Fish) to take stronger action, not only to combat IUU’s threat to marine ecosystems and the sustainability of fish stocks, but to remove the advantage held by IUU fishers in terms of profitability and available resources. The yellow card has also negatively impacted Vietnam’s seafood exports to Europe and potentially to other markets.
Determined to have the yellow card removed by the end of 2022, the government has, among other measures, adopted the Fisheries Law 2017, issued several directive documents, launched media campaigns and developed infrastructure. Most recently, Vietnam has shown its willingness to cooperate with the United States on eliminating illegal fishing. However, the efforts have not yet been enough to lift the yellow card.
Vietnam should consider learning from its neighbour, Thailand, who was yellow carded by the EC in April 2015. Thanks to a determined effort, Thailand was delisted from the group of “warned countries” in 2019. Their strategies included reforming the legal system, investing in the Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) system, and further cooperating with Regional Fisheries Management Organisations and neighbouring countries.
In particular, Thailand was praised for its comprehensive revision of fisheries law. The Royal Ordinance on Fisheries B.E. 2558 grounded in international laws and standards was swiftly enacted after the yellow card was issued. The law recognises IUU fishing as an international crime and carries fines up to 30 million THB (US$817,000) or five times the value of the catch. Most importantly, the Thai government makes efforts to ensure strict law enforcement. Approximately 4,400 IUU cases have been prosecuted since the Royal Ordinance came into effect.
Vietnam’s 2017 Fisheries Law, however, has been criticised for its weak deterrence, with penalties for IUU fishing much lower than those of neighbouring countries. The maximum fine for individual illegal fishers is 1 billion VND (US$42,000) and law enforcement remains weak and not synchronised at the provincial level. The cases of IUU fishing caught are still minimal.
Should Vietnam want its yellow card removed, it must deal with the many vessels in the country that are still not equipped with monitoring and ports that need upgrading.
A good place for Vietnam to start would be to mirror Thailand’s enhanced MCS system and investment in technologies such as the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS), Electronic Reporting System and Electronic Monitoring, along with an equivalent of Thailand’s Fisheries Monitoring Centre (FMC), which oversees MCS operations and undertakes port inspections. Thailand also applies several Port State Measures with the aim of preventing foreign vessels involved in IUU fishing from using ports, landing catches and entering markets. Should Vietnam want its yellow card removed, it must deal with the many vessels in the country that are still not equipped with VMS and ports that need upgrading.
Vietnam must also look at Thailand’s success in achieving close cooperation with Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RMFOs) and neighbouring countries. For a long time, RFMOs have played an important role in combating IUU fishing. These organisations help conduct in-port and at-sea inspections and circulate information about vessels involved in IUU fishing activities. Thailand is currently a member of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission and a cooperating non-member of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. It is also party to several international treaties, such as the UN Fish Stock Agreement, the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA), and the Southern Indian Ocean Fisheries Agreement.
At present, Vietnam is a cooperating non-member of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission and takes part in the Ocean and Fisheries Working Group of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. In 2019, Vietnam also acceded to the PSMA. However, cooperation with RFMOs and neighbouring countries should be accelerated. Vietnam needs to continue seeking information sharing and technical assistance from foreign partners. And, similar to Thailand, adopting and adhering to international regulations on IUU fishing.