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Legal vs. illegal fish: Why German consumers can’t be so sure of what they eat
Dec 09, 2015

Legal vs. illegal fish: Why German consumers can’t be so sure of what they eat

By EJF Staff

Christmas is almost here, and as you might know, the festive season in Germany comes with a lot of traditional fish dishes. Celebrations usually call for carp, a freshwater fish from our rivers in Europe or often produced in aquaculture farms. Thankfully for the consumer who may be on the lookout for sustainable products, as freshwater species, carps are not subject to illegal ‘pirate’ fishing, one of the main threats to our marine environment.

Apart from carps at Christmas, German consumers are increasingly fond of fish. On their plates we can find fish sourced from more than 100 countries. However, Germany’s fish resources can’t meet this relentless appetite any longer, so the country needs to import 88% of the fish consumed.

Germany needs more fish than they have. Some other countries are willing to sell theirs. Anyone familiar with the law of supply and demand would imagine that it is a win-win situation.

Unfortunately, this is far from the reality. Fisheries are not like any other commodity production. It is difficult to control vessels, and it is sometimes almost impossible to trace back fish products from net-to-plate. Whoever gets the fish first usually keeps it and the ones not sticking to the existing rules often are better off than the ones who do.  The lack of transparency allows pirate fishing to thrive.

A couple of weeks ago, the German Parliament pushed a motion from CDU/CSU and SPD asking the Government to take important steps to fight pirate fishing worldwide. The Parliament’s call was clear: no fish should enter the German market without being 100% sure that it was caught legally. This is obviously a delicate job considering that 18,000 consignments come to Germany each year, creating about 45,000 documents (catch certificates) that need to be reviewed.

It is merely impossible for the control agency in Germany to review 45,000 documents per year. In a nutshell, the control agency currently checks about one third of all consignments and documents coming in. According to recent information, they focus their efforts on consignments that don’t come directly to Germany from the fishing vessels. To give you some statistics, these imports account for about 70-80% in Germany, mainly fish coming via containers.

To summarise, the Parliament asked to ensure that no illegal fish land in Germany, while the controlling authority only has the capacity to verify 33% of consignments and 70-80% of imports have a higher risk of being illegally caught fish.

This motion was nonetheless ground breaking, as it formulated key recommendations on how Germany could better control its imports – notably by advocating for the conduct of a Risk Based Assessment. For instance, such a Risk Based Assessment should allow for more efficient inspections giving adequate resources to focus on fish imports from specific countries or fish caught by specific vessels and many further aspects. For the specialists that we are, this sounds like a good plan. It means more efficiency and more certainty. 

Today, the Government provided answers to questions the party DIE LINKE submitted to assess what Germany is currently doing to address the issue. According to the Government, Germany has successfully implemented the EU IUU-Regulation, a very modern and efficient toolbox to prevent consignments from pirate fishing reaching the EU market. This should be a relief then when the Government himself says that, “about 25% of world catches is from pirate fishing”.

The general impression is that Germany is trying to do a good job, but unfortunately some elements are still missing to come closer to an illegal-fish free market. This might be a matter of budget as only 3-5 people are currently in charge of controlling consignments or perhaps the lack of information does not allow to work on a fit Risk Based Assessment. But it is still fair to wonder if the distinction made between direct and indirect imports really allows conducting an efficient Risk Based Assessment? Should we also do about the large number of consignments entering the German market without inspection?

Whatever reason it may be, knowing that 66% of third-state imports to Germany remain unchecked will leave a doubt in the mind of the German’s consumers.  Has the fish in their plate been caught legally or illegally? The threat of carps being fished illegal may be relatively low, but we shall all be able to answer this question with certainty.

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