Vietnam Eyes Lifting of the EU ‘Yellow Card’

Vietnam's Khanh Hoa province by Nguyen Dung VNA.; modified

There are few indicators that the South China Sea’s seafood rivalry will slow down. Fishermen and the region face a looming fishery crisis due to illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, overfishing, marine pollution, warming seas and the securitization of fisheries.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a serious global problem that threatens ocean ecosystems and sustainable fisheries. That’s why the European Union (EU) officials continue to monitor Vietnamese fishermen after they received a “yellow card” in 2017. Exporting countries to the EU are categorized and subject to penalties using a color-coded card system; the colors are green, yellow, red, and, in the worst-case situation, a complete halt to trade.

Fortunately, Vietnamese fishing captain Tran Hong Tho, an experienced fisherman and thousands of others, have seen positive improvements in their fisheries management as a result of these EU fines.

This is not to argue that there have not been disputes over fisheries in the disputed South China Sea or East Sea, as the Vietnamese refer to it. However, there are fewer occurrences, which is great news for Tho, considering that in 2017, a Chinese vessel sank his own customary wooden fishing boat. But the news is bad for fish.

Authorities have not yet prevented Vietnamese illegal fishing in neighboring countries’ exclusive economic zones. In 2022, 919 people and 104 Vietnamese fishing boats were detained on suspicion of participating in illegal fishing overseas. Vietnam’s attempts to have its yellow card erased are still being undermined by these violations.

Fish stocks, like the snappers and Spanish mackerel caught in the South China Sea, have been depleted by 70-95 percent since the 1950s according to experts at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). China consumes half of the world’s seafood, which propels the country’s nearly 5,000-vessel distant-water fleet- the largest in the world- to plunder the ocean.

For the EU and also the U.S., the international regulatory environment requires traceability of imported seafood. This includes fishing ground, fishing time, type of vessels, ports for their departure and return, and compliance with fisheries laws.

Over the past six years, Vietnam has undertaken bold and transparent steps to meet international fishery requirements. This has included enacting the Fisheries Law and the establishment of transparent fishing vessel data covering registration and the proper issuance of fishing licenses.

“Combatting IUU is not just a form of response, but it is for the interests of the nation and people,” says Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. Government officials understand that their certification compliance helps preserve the nation’s image, fulfills international commitments, and affirms Vietnam as a responsible member of the international community.

Hanoi’s political leadership in concert with the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries DG-MARE of EC has prompted Vietnam to make significant gains as a responsible and sustainable fisheries industry.

However, the imposed ‘yellow card’ has led to a consistent decline in overall export sales to the European Union. Statistics from the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP) reveal that in the first nine months of 2023 the total turnover of seafood was $6.6 billion exported to the EU – a decrease of 22 percent on year.

However, according to Enrico Brivio, a spokesman for the EU’s Environment, Marine Affairs, and Fisheries, Vietnam is actively pursuing the implementation of four specific recommendations from the European Commission: bolstering the legal framework; controlling fishing vessel operations; certifying output and tracing exploited aquatic products; and bolstering law enforcement.

Before venturing out into the vast blue sea to catch fish and make sure their counterparts are abiding by fishery laws, fishermen in Ham Ninh hamlet, one of the oldest villages in Vietnam, which is located on the east coast of Phu Quoc island, voluntarily register and obtain licenses to use their fishing vessels.

The fishing community has also established local inspection teams of its own. Every fishing vessel involved in these operations has Zalo communications software installed, enabling them to stay connected and communicate.

This information technology initiative aims to create suitable and effective role models for fishing communities in accordance with regulations, minimizing negative impacts on water environment quality. It does this by combining tradition and application of IT to effectively communicate environmental protection regulations to fishermen and small businesses at the boat dock.

The installation of monitoring and supervisory equipment on over 98% of Vietnam’s offshore fishing vessels has contributed to the nation’s fisheries compliance status. Additionally, the chain of harvesting, processing, and exporting has reflected a course correction on seafood traceability. Furthermore, there has been an 84% decrease in fishing vessel infractions related to trespassing in foreign waters.

Vietnam deserves praise for the openness with which fishery management in at least 28 coastal communities has shared data and information during sporadic inspections by the EU. However, the fact that Vietnamese fishermen are still being arrested in other nations’ exclusive economic zones worries inspectors and local officials.

The E.C. Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (MARE) IUU Fisheries Policy Unit’s Roberto Cesari urged authorities to strive for the implementation of efficient fleet monitoring and to guarantee uniform enforcement from the federal to local levels last year.

However, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) evaluation, states that local too many fishing vessels continue to breach international waterways.

Vietnam needs to decrease its production of marine exploitation in order to get rid of the EC’s “yellow card” for seafood, but it also needs to raise the value of seafood in order to grow its economy and protect the livelihoods of fishermen.

In the wake of the recent APEC 2023 summit, held in San Francisco with the US as acting host, and keeping in mind the agreed upon comprehensive strategic partnership that now exists between the US and Vietnam, it seems that there’s even greater impetus to get the onerous EU ‘yellow card lifted, otherwise there may be restrictions imposed on access to the American market.

There’s reason for optimism since the U.S. Interagency Working Group on IUU Fishing through multiple federal agencies has effectively reached out to targeted countries for collaboration in efforts to combat IUU. Their September visit to Vietnam highlights Vietnam’s willingness to partner in assessing capabilities, identified areas for improvement, and in developing a multi-year plan to strengthen Vietnam’s capacity to address these IUU problems.

Their discussions offered critical and practical areas for collaboration, spanning training, guidance, legal advice and operations. The blueprint for Vietnam is clear: they must reduce marine exploitation, and in the process develop the economy and ensure fishermen’s livelihoods by increasing the value of seafood.

For fisherman like Tho and other fishermen crossing the rough and dangerous waters in their wooden boats, the future may hold a promising safety net below for better and safer fishing.


James Borton is a non-resident senior fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Foreign Policy Institute and the author of Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of

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