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Can the law stop illegal fishing?

Just a few years ago, when Dr Mercedes Rosello brought up illegal fishing in conversation, she got a lot of blank stares. But now ocean sustainability is at the top of the agenda for many NGOs and governments around the world – and Mercedes sees hope for the future in her work to protect fish stocks, fishing communities and the marine environment.

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Mercedes Rosello

Protecting our oceans needs a more proactive and imaginative application of the law – for people and planet

Protecting the ocean stirs up passion in different ways. Some people pick up litter from beaches. Others campaign to stop consumers eating overfished species. But Mercedes Rosello thinks bigger. She studies legal frameworks to find ways to prevent illegal fishing and improve the governance of the oceans. Her published work informs the latest thinking in this area.

Illegal fishing is widespread and often invisible, and it causes a multitude of problems. Fish stocks are reduced and sometimes entire species are threatened. Boats discard fishing nets and equipment which can be deadly to marine life for decades. And there are human costs too.

Research indicates there is a connection between illegal fishing and poor governance, and at times illegal fishing is linked to corruption. A lack of transparency in how governments regulate fishing activities or deal with suspected or confirmed illegality perpetuates the problem.

Sometimes illegal fishing is connected to poverty and carried out by people who don’t have other choices. For example, on some larger vessels that spend a long time at sea, there can be abuse of human rights – people are taken on board, mistreated and have no freedom to leave, or worse: sometimes they never return to shore.

How can the law help protect oceans?

Although it’s a complicated problem, Mercedes believes there are important tools at our disposal to make change happen.

Fishing trawler at sea

"For example, we need to make international markets able to differentiate between good and bad practices, and be more nimble in their responses to products that don’t meet guarantees of legality or standards of sustainability. Such changes would help support organisations fishing responsibly, and weed out those who don’t."

“It’s important that legal frameworks help identify and support good practices, and for this we need standards of transparency. The information that is needed to ensure sustainability and the protection of the people on board – where those vessels are operating, their identity, what permits they have, what they’re catching, the people they have on board – must be recorded and shared with the competent authorities.

“It is those authorities that can facilitate the trade of sea products that meet certain criteria, and that can also act appropriately through investigations and sanctions when they don’t.”

However, it is a complex issue. For example, “Some countries’ fleets are better regulated than others, but regulations aren’t always observed. While some countries don’t have strong or comprehensive legal frameworks, their officials may nevertheless be trying hard to do the right thing.

In Mercedes’ opinion, “an important part of the solution is to support as many countries as possible to develop appropriate governance approaches, including optimum legal frameworks. Without good law, there can be too much ambiguity to clearly define and combat practices that, though undesirable, may ultimately not be illegal.”

Things like satellite surveillance have become more developed, and some solutions are now more affordable to countries that couldn’t have used them before, enabling them to protect their marine resources better.

Inspiring students to do their part

Mercedes has a background working with NGOs. Now she’s a researcher and lecturer at Leeds Beckett working on international, EU and UK law. She runs her own blog and her work has been published across a range of books and journals. She has recently published her first book, which explores the effectiveness and legitimacy of international frameworks used to fight unregulated fishing.

She’s known around LBU as an expert in the subject and has seen an increasing number of students asking her about marine conservation. Some just want to know more about it. Others are looking to work in the sector or want guidance in their studies so they can gain a specialism as researchers, practitioners, government officials, or NGO workers. If it’s an area that interests you, don’t be afraid to ask her for advice!

It’s very encouraging that young people want to get involved in this kind of work – it’s their future at the end of the day.

Working towards a solution

Mercedes believes there are going to be increasing job opportunities where you can make a difference to ocean sustainability. Within the law profession, industry as well as government lawyers have a huge role to play. Large fishing companies, seafood importers, supermarkets and other retailers, industry associations, international organisations, and consultancy firms also need law and policy experts with an interest in sustainability. NGOs, charities, creative industries, academia – whichever career path you choose, there are lots of ways to contribute to a sustainable future.

Want to learn more?

To find out more about Mercedes’ work to protect the ocean, visit the House of Ocean website.

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Dr Mercedes Rosello

Senior Lecturer / Leeds Law School

Dr. Mercedes Rosello is a Senior Lecturer at Leeds Law School. She is a committed teacher, and an experienced researcher in European Union and Public International Law. Her work has been published in peer-reviewed journals and other academic media.

Mercedes has a special interest in the European Union as an external actor, particularly in matters concerning the regulation of transnational fisheries. Her research interests also include international legal frameworks for marine fisheries regulation, indigenous rights over marine areas and assets, illegal fishing market controls, and the practice of States and regional organisations in the establishment of international standards of ocean governance. Mercedes has a long list of publications, both recent and pending.  

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