Press release: 30 June 2021

EU countries must embrace new system to combat illegal fishing – new study

Illegally caught fish could continue to enter the EU’s common market if Member States don’t rapidly adopt a new, EU-endorsed digital import control system, a new report has shown.

The study, by environmental lawyers ClientEarth, shows that the diverse array of systems used by EU member states to log imported fish could let vast quantities of illegal fish enter the common market.

The lawyers say the findings highlight the urgent need for the quick implementation of CATCH, a new pan-European, digital system, which has just been voted on by the Council.

Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing represents up to 14 million tonnes of fish and lost revenues of up to USD 17 billion a year, and is labelled as one of the biggest threats to the ocean.

Since 2010, the way the EU has fought the import of IUU seafood partly relies on Member States checking that imported fish has the right catch certificate, and barring imports from a list of countries tied to illegal fishing.

But the ClientEarth study suggests that this system isn’t working well enough. Different countries are using different methods of checking these certificates – some digital, some paper based – and there is a major lack of cross-checking between countries. This makes it possible for importers who have been refused access at one entry point to try in several other EU countries.

ClientEarth Sustainable Seafood Lead Quentin Marchais said: “Our study shows that there are as many EU systems to tackle illegal and destructive fishing as there are EU Member States. This patchy approach – including paper-based processes – is making it far too easy for unscrupulous operators to access the EU market. As the largest importer of seafood products in the world, every EU Member State needs to embrace CATCH, so we can stop funding the illegal fishing that is wreaking havoc in our seas.”

In this report called “Digitising the control of fishery product imports”, lawyers found out that out of the 26 Member States studied, 13 – including France, Denmark and Belgium – continue to verify catch certificates on paper and have not established IT tools to assist them. The other 13 Member states – including Spain, Germany and the Netherlands – have their own IT system. However, these are not mutually compatible, which prevents automatic cross-checking between different Member States.

As the EU recently introduced an EU wide digitised system to fight IUU – CATCH – designed to help close the breaches allowing illegal fish to slip through the net, ClientEarth lawyers are calling member states and the EU for its swift implementation – without waiting until they have to.

Marchais said: “There is no time to lose. The EU has already missed the 2020 deadline to make Europe’s seas sustainable. The bloc must quickly retake control of imported seafood through the CATCH system and put it to work as soon as possible. It is crucial to protect our world’s resources as the growing appetite for seafood makes IUU fishing a very lucrative and appealing business.”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, total fish consumption has risen by 122% between 1990 and 2018 while sustainable fish stocks have fallen from 90% to 65.8% over the same period.


Notes to editors:

The European Union’s IUU Regulation came into force in January 2010. It is designed to prevent IUU fishery products from entering the EU market.

The IUU Regulation requires catch certificates for seafood imports and exports and bans the import of fish from states and vessels known to be involved in IUU fishing.

In 2019, the EU decided to lay out an EU-wide digitised system to process catch certificates and progressively replace systems in place at national level.

Read the report “Digitising the control of fishery product import” here.

Earlier this year, ClientEarth published two reports showing that the adoption of a digital system helped Spain progress against IUU fishing : the Spanish system for the digitalisation of fish imports and Spain, a progress report on a decade of combating IUU fishing.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.