Will new multilateral arrangements help Southeast Asian states solve illegal fishing?

AuthorWilliams, Meryl J.

Cross-border illegal fishing is one of Southeast Asia's most prominent maritime security problems. Accurate estimates concerning the extent of illegal fishing in Southeast Asia are not available, but general levels may be inferred from a global study published in 2009 in which Southeast Asian waters fall across three regions: the Eastern Indian Ocean, the Northwest Pacific and the Western Central Pacific. (1) The study shows that these three regions had among the highest estimated percentages of illegal fishing in the world, namely 32, 33 and 34 per cent respectively between 2000 and 2003. These estimates indirectly support anecdotal evidence from fishers and others involved in the fishing industry that Southeast Asian domestic and cross-border illegal fishing is a major threat to maritime and resource security, and may be of the order of one third of the reported catch. In addition to poaching the fish stocks of other states, illegal fishing is frequently associated with other illegal activities such as smuggling of fish, fuel and people, piracy and kidnapping. (2) Thus, illegal fishing, now commonly combined with unreported and unregulated fishing, generates diplomatic, territorial, military, food, fisheries and environmental security threats across Southeast Asia.

Addressing illegal cross border fishing is fraught with problems. First, since Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing (IUU) can be entangled with other illegal activities, state agencies tasked with addressing illegal fishing often lack the resources to effectively tackle the problem and may themselves even be complicit in some of those illegal activities. Second, the extreme sensitivity and nationalism aroused over outstanding territorial and maritime jurisdictional claims, especially in the South China Sea, can lead states to protect their own transgressing fishers, and treat with extreme force those of offending states.

Southeast Asian states have traditionally preferred bilateral to multilateral action when problems arose, and tended to collaborate only in "soft" ways such as joint research. As problems have multiplied, however, they have taken steps to strengthen multilateral cooperation, resulting in the emergence of new regional actors to address IUU and related issues. Significantly, since 2007, three new multilateral agencies have been created: the Regional Plan of Action to Promote Responsible Fishing Practices including Combating IUU Fishing in the Region (RPOA [IUU]), the ASEAN-Southeast Asia Fisheries Development Center Strategic Partnership (ASSP) and the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI). These three new actors comprise both state and non-state actors from Southeast Asia and outside the region.

This paper examines the role played by these three new multilateral actors. It investigates whether they replace the activities of state actors or if they are tools to make state actors more effective, both in their management of fisheries and in resolving cross-border security problems. The paper argues that the three new arrangements augment cooperation between Southeast Asian states, but they are still too immature and low-key to change the way these states prevent cross-border IUU fishing. The article concludes by suggesting that as they grow and mature, these new arrangements may assist Southeast Asian states to attend to their existing shortcomings in fisheries management capacity and could lead eventually to more effective regional management arrangements. (3)

The Old Actors

Fish are important to Southeast Asian economies. Southeast Asian states produce 17 per cent of world fish caught in the wild. Six Southeast Asian countries (Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) are among the world's top 20 fishing economies. In Southeast Asia, at least 10 million people fish, about a quarter of the total number of fishers worldwide; marine fisheries support the livelihoods of over 100 million people and are a valuable source of protein for hundreds of millions more. (4) The fishing catch contributes significantly to Southeast Asian food sovereignty, (5) export income, and regional and international trade, and directly benefits both the owners of capital and employees. However, while Southeast Asia's fishery resources are large and valuable, they are not well managed: most are over-exploited and marine environments are increasingly being degraded.

Over the past few decades competition for fish and other maritime resources in Southeast Asia has intensified, particularly since regional states declared their 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zones (EEZs) when the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) came into effect in 1994--a process that accelerated what Butcher calls "the closing of the frontier" for Southeast Asian fishers. (6) Combined with increasing market demand and the prevailing "boom and bust" of the fish stocks caused by modern (over)fishing, (7) Southeast Asian states have become more protective of their fish stocks, and increasingly sensitive to cross-border fishing incursions. Indeed, cross-border fishing has become conflated with territorial disputes, and fishers are increasingly the vanguard of territorial claims, supported by state maritime force. In particular, cross-border fishing enters the sensitive realm of international politics in disputed areas, especially the South China Sea. Given the importance and the complex, invariably transnational, nature of fishing, a range of state and non-state actors have been involved in fisheries management. Indeed, the new multilateral arrangements discussed in this article enter a field rich in preexisting or "old actors" that can be categorized into five groups: first, Southeast Asian states plus external states and their fisheries, environment, enforcement, trade and scientific agencies; second, longer-established regional actors in fisheries, particularly bilateral and multilateral efforts and institutions; third, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with fisheries and the marine environment; fourth, fish harvest sector actors, including labourers, fishing companies, boat owners and masters; and fifth, other indigenous and transnational fish supply chain actors such as traders and supermarkets.

State fisheries agencies are notionally the leaders in state fisheries matters, but their own weaknesses and the complexity and power of many of the other actors make this lead tenuous. The biggest problem in regard to managing fishery resources are Southeast Asian countries' lack of management and enforcement capacities and the conflict of interests regarding, on the one hand, the economic benefits of fishing and, on the other hand, the protection of marine resources. The gaps in effective management of fisheries and enforcement capacities are widely acknowledged in Southeast Asia, even by state fisheries management actors themselves. A recent collaborative study by the RPOA state fisheries actors, for example, concluded that despite the strengths of individual agencies in some fields, many lack full capacity in basic fisheries management responsibilities, such as planning or scientific and economic expertise. (8) Problems such as corruption that are inherent in national management and enforcement agencies also affect efficiency. For example, in Indonesia, Michael Heazle and John Butcher found that state agencies, including the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries and the Indonesian navy, operate in a web of incentives that permits IUU. (9) The navy, which is responsible for enforcing some fisheries regulations, for instance, must raise much of its own funds and this provides an incentive to seek bribes from IUU operators. Also, J.J. Fox and his colleagues have shown how administrative decentralization in Indonesia in the post-New Order era created a fisheries management system fraught with tensions between overlapping and unclear responsibilities of agencies at different levels of government. (10)

Competing interests also adversely affect the willingness of states to protect marine resources. Driven by national objectives, Southeast Asian state actors are still oriented towards the paradigm of increasing fisheries production and income, rather than sustainable fisheries. National plans and policies emphasize increased fish production for food, markets, foreign exchange and jobs. This creates the problem of too many fishing vessels relative to resource limits, as well as over-fishing and weak controls on fishing. Given the large number of vessels allowed to operate, it is not surprising that both legal and illegal fishing contribute to over-fishing. Furthermore, even in countries where the number of boats is limited, problems remain. A 2009 Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) regional workshop held in Bangkok, for example, concluded that even in places where the number of vessels is tightly controlled, such as in Malaysia, fishing activity continues to escalate because the technical efficiency of the vessels is only minimally constrained. (11)

The second set of old state actors comprises the longer-established regional fisheries bodies and other bilateral and multilateral actors. Overall, bilateral fisheries management is rare in Southeast Asia. China and Vietnam have possibly the only joint fisheries management arrangement, covering the disputed and hence highly sensitive Gulf of Tonkin. (12) A number of bilateral fisheries access agreements have been signed between Southeast Asian states, but these do not constitute joint management initiatives. In fact, in the case of Indonesia, fisheries access agreements have often functioned as the back door to illegal fishing. (13) Multilateral regional efforts have so far only supported modest fisheries management cooperation. Indeed, with the exception of two tuna management bodies, all have been advisory, scientific or concerned with environmental and economic...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT