EU to fine, blacklist illegal fishing operators
LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - European Union ministers agreed on Tuesday to tighten inspections on illegal fishing in EU waters and slap stiff fines on lawbreakers and to compile blacklists of boats and countries.
The EU has one of the world's largest fishing fleets and is the top market and importer of fisheries products, worth around 14 billion euros ($21.7 billion) a year.
Of that, at least 1.1 billion euros is believed to come from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), which experts say poses a serious risk to marine biodiversity.
EU vessels or any non-EU vessel trying to land a catch at an EU port will, from 2010, be hit with a maximum fine of five times the market value of the catch. For a repeat offence, that fine is set at eight times the value.
"We have established maximum levels of sanctions to be applied to fishermen who engage in IUU fishing," EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg told a news conference.
"The scope of the regulation is to cover both EU vessels and those of third countries, irrespective of where they carry out their fishing," he said. The idea is that non-EU vessels wanting to land illegally would find EU ports shut to them.
Fishing using banned practices -- overly small nets, explosives or squirting chemicals into the water to stun fish without killing them, for example -- can cause a high level of unwanted by-catches, also of other species such as seabirds or turtles, that are then thrown back into the sea.
Other illegal practices include ignoring the need to require catch licenses, quota-busting, entering closed fishing areas, using non-approved tackle and catching undersized fish.
A lot of IUU fishing is done by vessels that use so-called flags of convenience where scrutiny by local authorities can often be minimized, officials say.
To tackle this problem, the EU plans to blacklist countries used as hosts for such flags and any vessels that carry out IUU fishing or are registered under the flag of a country that has been deemed suspect for turning a blind eye to IUU fishing.
The new law also restricts access to EU markets to fisheries products, including processed, that have been certified as legal by the flag state or exporting state concerned.
"The measures allow an efficient certification system that will allow us to close EU markets to IUU products," Borg said.
Worldwide, illegal fishing is estimated to be worth 10 billion euros a year. Fishermen working illegally can usually maintain low operating costs and enjoy substantial profits.
(Editing by Mariam Karouny)