The Long Read: Fishing Industry Lobbies Against CITES Modernisation – Here’s Why
Lynn Johnson
22nd May 2022

Over the last two years, Nature Needs More has continued to meet with politicians and government agencies in our push for modernising CITES. During this time, it has become clear that the fishing industry is a key obstructionist to the urgent need to modernise the regulator of the global trade in endangered species. So, why is this the case?

The solution Nature Needs More proposes to modernise the global regulator would expand CITES remit over the fishing industry (and forestry) and currently this industry and the global fishery management authorities have too much power. Most recently, in March 2022, this was highlighted with the collapse of negotiations on the treaty to protect the high seas from exploitation.

The unchecked pillaging of the seas has resulted in a growing number of marine species being added to the CITES convention and, as a result, trade restrictions imposed (at least on paper). Under the current CITES model, adding species takes time, a lot of time. A paper published in February 2019 concludes that species identified by the IUCN Red List as being threatened from trade can wait as long as 24 years for protection under CITES, the average wait is 12 yearsDuring this waiting time the species can be freely and legally traded.

Lobbying to maintain the status quo of this ‘old thinking’ CITES model means the fishing industry can carry on, unchecked, for years and decades to come.

So, it came as no surprise to see an article this week regarding the millions of tonnes of dead, dumped fish and the growing scandal of fish waste. The people monitoring the fishing industry rightly say that it is critical to understand what is driving this waste between harvest and plate. And here is the key, they say, “The task is made difficult by fisheries’ notoriously opaque supply chains, and incomplete datasets, that are also inconsistent.” Certainly, a feeling of déjà vu! Opaque supply chains, incomplete and inconsistent datasets; this exact same sentence could be written about the CITES trade data.

Hidden in these opaque supply chains is the proof of decades of overexploitation. This lack of willingness to invest in supply chain transparency because this would eat into profits means, at the extreme end, this enables incompetence, fraud and corruption to flourish. It is yet another example showing industrial scale wildlife crime is a failure of business, industries, markets and investors.

The Power of Primary Industries 

The fishing industry can stall progress on any attempt to modernise CITES that would give CITES a greater say over the seafood trade because it tends to sit in the primary industries portfolio of government and, as such, has much more power than a country’s CITES management authority, which usually sits in the environment portfolio.

In theory (as written in the articles of the convention), the current scope of CITES includes all international trade in all marine species, including fishing on the high seas. In practice, CITES only lists a handful of marine species that can be classed as commercial seafood. Yet the global trade in seafood is by far the largest wildlife trade, estimated to be worth US$320 billion in 2016.

It is also big business. A recent presentation by Skretting CEO Therese Log Bergjord confirmed that 24 companies in the seafood business each have a turnover in excess of US$1 billion. The largest, Maruha Nichiro of Japan, has a turnover of US$7.2 billion and a market capitalisation of US$1.2 billion.

Looking at this list it is obvious that seafood is dominated by large companies, but that still leaves the question ‘What about all those small fishing boats?’, all those ‘hard-working’ fishermen that are always presented by the mainstream media when they talk about fishing (which happened a lot during the Brexit negotiations). Well, the EU is very helpful in providing a detailed breakdown of its fishing fleet from which we can learn that the total fleet comprised of 65,500 vessels in 2017, landing a total catch of 5.3million tonnes.

Of those vessels nearly 80% (49,500 vessels) comprise the small-scale coastal fleet, those proverbial ‘little’ boats from the news. Yet these small-scale vessels land only 8% of the total catch. The rest, so to say, is big business and big boats.

Environmentally Damaging Taxpayer Subsidies 

Add to this the problem of taxpayer funded subsidies to the fishing industry. Although subsidies were historically devised to support small-scale fishers, today 80% of US$35.4bn in annual fishing subsidies goes to a handful of industrial fleets, according to recent research.

The bulk of these subsidies are fuel subsidies. They are the only way to make most distant water fishing economically viable. China, the EU, US, Japan and South Korea, all heavily subsidise their fishing fleets. If they didn’t, distant water fishing wouldn’t be possible. China, for instance, is reliant on distant water fishing because its fisheries are the most depleted in the world. The Chinese distant water fishing fleet (which operates outside the country’s already huge Exclusive Economic Zone -EEZ) is the world’s largest and is believed to have nearly 17,000 vessels. For comparison, the EU distant water fishing fleet is around 255 vessels.

Fishing is not just big business, it is heavily subsidised big business. And even though industrial fishing fleets put their hands out for taxpayer subsidies, the governments that support this don’t appear to ask for anything in return. Which is why ClientEarth, an environmental law charity, has launched legal action against all 27 EU countries over the setting of unsustainable fishing quotas for 2022, two years after an EU deadline to end overfishing.

Marine Parks and Protected Areas, A.K.A, ‘Parks On Paper’

One way that governments have tried to persuade the public that they are tackling unsustainable fishing is by creating Marine Parks or setting aside Marine Protected Areas. At first glance the perception would be that fishing doesn’t occur in these regions, but you would be wrong. In reality, it would be more appropriate to call these marine sanctuaries just ‘Parks on Paper’. Let’s highlight just a few examples:

  1. EU – Auditors in EU highlight only 1% of 3,000 supposedly ‘protected’ areas in the Mediterranean ban fishing.
  2. EU – A 2018 analysis of Europe’s seas confirmed destructive trawling is more intense inside official EU marine sanctuaries, while endangered fish are more common outside them.
  3. UK – 97% of UK marine protected areas are subject to bottom-trawling.
  4. Australia – Bid to limit commercial fishing in marine parks defeated.

But this isn’t only an issue of marine protected areas and marine parks. It is about the lack of transparency and so the lack of proof of sustainability. 

Global Fishing Index 

To see what this is leading to in relation to the state of fisheries, we can now draw on the most comprehensive assessment conducted to-date, thanks to the Forrest family’s Minderoo Foundation, which launched its Global Fishing Index in 2021.

According to the widely cited UN Food and Agriculture Organization – FAO – data on fishing, around 35% of fisheries are considered overfishedThe much more comprehensive assessment of 1,465 fish stocks across 142 countries carried out for the 2021 Global Fishing Index showed that the situation is far worse.

According to this assessment at least half of all fisheries that could be assessed are overfished and 10% are on the brink of collapse. With insufficient data for nearly half of global fisheries to carry out an assessment, the situation could be even worse than that. Not only is the situation truly dire, but the fact that not enough data is available to properly monitor half of all fisheries across the planet is a sad indictment of our relationship to nature and especially to the oceans. According to Minderoo, 1 in 5 fishing nations do not require fishers to report any catch data and half do not independently verify catch information. Further, 40% of countries do not formally assess most of their fish stocks.

The Toxic Business Of Aquaculture 

It could be argued that the significant shift to aquaculture in recent years is going to improve the situation, but there are two counterarguments to this. First, the state of global fisheries remains in decline and overfishing continues to rise, despite massive investments in aquaculture (especially in China).

Second, open water aquaculture can be equally destructive to marine ecosystems as trawling – it can wipe out pretty much all other marine species if conducted without sufficient regulation and oversight. The example of salmon farming is well known in this respect. Not only do salmon farms extensively pollute the waters they are conducted in, but on top of that salmon are predators and are fed fish meal, which in turn comes from trawling, the most destructive form of fishing.

Add to this the frankly cruel practices that are allowed in aquaculture, such as the use of underwater explosives, yes this is legal!

Just one recently published example is that Huon Aquaculture (owned by JBS S.A., a Brazilian company that is the largest meat processing company in the world) accounted for the deaths of at least three-quarters of seals killed at Tasmanian salmon farms since the start of last year, with new data showing the company released more than 8,000 underwater explosives aimed at scaring the seals.

And There Is More 

The fishing industry:

  1. Routinely discards used nets at sea, known to be devastating for marine life, because they won’t commit to an end-of-life plan for fishing nets.
  2. Is known to employ slave labour
  3. Creates devastation through indiscriminate ‘bycatch’ on an industrial scale
  4. Extensively uses antibiotics and anti-parasiticides in aquaculture even when conducted in open water.
  5. Is known to facilitate laundering of high-value wild-caught species in marine ranches

Emptying Seas, Wildlife Trade And Pandemics

A 2016 paper, Ebola Viral Disease in West Africa: A Threat to Global Health, Economy and Political Stability, looked at the potential drivers of Ebola viral disease outbreaks. The publication stated “decreased fish catch, resulting from over-fishing by subsidized Chinese and European vessels, has enhanced wildlife hunting and bush meat consumption (as an alternative source of proteins) in several fishing communities along the west coast of Africa”.

This research into the consequences of emptying seas off the coast of West Africa provides an insight into why the Chinese government decided to establish large‐scale breeding of wildlife in the country, over the last 20 years.

A 2019 paper, Captive Breeding of Wildlife Resources – China’s Revised Supply‐side Approach to Conservation, discusses “game farming and intensive game husbandry are still in a premature state with nontransparent and inchoate governmental legislation and vague guidelines for animal health and welfare”.  As the oceans and seas off the coast of China were emptied, a substitute industry was needed; before COVID, and the change in government policy enacted as a result, China had over 20,000 wildlife captive breeding facilities, breeding pythons, bears, tigers, raccoon dogs and much more.

Could it be that the same lack of regulation of industrial scale overfishing that led to wildlife hunting, bush meat consumption and Ebola in Western Africa, triggered the move to the captive breeding of wildlife in China and the COVID pandemic?


Seafood is indeed big business, conducted mostly by large corporations. Governments, businesses and industry bodies worldwide like to project that commercial fishing is sustainable. Yet they provide no proof of this statement and whenever audits or research is undertaken the conclusion is that there is no proof of sustainable offtake and the state of fisheries continues to decline.

Most of these effects could be contained with proper monitoring and regulation, but businesses fight those with all their might and in all but a few instances win.

The fishing industry is too powerful which is why, for decades, it has been allowed to get away with “notoriously opaque supply chains, and incomplete datasets, that are also inconsistent.” It is a global industry that needs an effective and powerful global regulator, which could be achieved by modernising CITES to be based on a positive (reverse) listing approach and industry paying the cost of regulation. To understand how this global regulation process can work download our report, Modernising CITES – A Blueprint for Better Trade Regulation.

The wasteful and destructive practices of the fishing industry have long passed their use-by date, but their power and scale prevents better regulation for not only marine species, but also terrestrial and freshwater species.

How long will we continue to let these industries stand in the way of modernising international governance?

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