TNRC Argentina pilot summary
Fishing discards: Collateral damage
Discarding is the practice of returning unwanted specimens in a catch back to the ocean. Unwanted specimens could be another species that fishers are not targeting, or undersize juveniles of the target species. Unfortunately, by the time they are returned to the water, the fish are usually dead or dying, making discards “one of the most wasteful human marine activities.” Just one example from Argentina illustrates the problem: discards of undersized hake, along with hake bycatch from shrimping vessels, are estimated to have comprised almost 40% of the total allowable catch for that fishery in 2017.
Discarding has been prohibited by law in Argentina since 1997, and onboard inspection systems should identify any instances of the practice. Instead, however, discards continued to be misreported and misrepresented, with an alleged culture of bribery and collusion between inspectors, captains, and company owners covering up the illicit activity. Enabling all of this was a lack of reliable digital monitoring, reporting, and traceability systems, beyond a few specific export fisheries.
A dual approach
Recognizing the systemic and interrelated nature of the challenge, FVS pursued two complementary tracks of activity. As FVS put it, “with a mixed bottom-up and top-down approach, our theory of change [was] based on the notion that working with stakeholders can steer changes for tackling corruption and therefore allow sustainable production. However, strong regulations are also needed that promote better practices in the near future.”
From the bottom up, they set out to develop and deploy an electronic tool to improve transparency in the seafood value chain. Argentina’s existing “electronic fisheries information systems” (EFIS) did not allow for accurate and verifiable collection of data due to weaknesses in scope, implementation, and governance. FVS, in consultation with academics and fishery companies, decided to focus on the “e-logbook” part of the EFIS, which involves fishers’ catch documentation and reporting and so is the most directly related to the bycatch issue.
From the top down, FVS also set out to secure passage of a national traceability law. In addition to its positive effect on bringing transparency to the sector, such a law would help incentivize fishers’ uptake of the electronic tool and provide a path for scaling it up.
Implementation: Learning from neighbors
One of FVS’s first activities involved learning from WWF offices in the region who had implemented or were about to implement similar activities, including WWF Chile, WWF Ecuador, and WWF Peru. The offices exchanged their technical experiences along with their codes and apps, and they shared practical considerations like development and maintenance costs. FVS recalled, for example, that they “learned that for each case, a programmer was hired to adapt the code to the local context. As a key message we learned that the programmer should be active in the relationship with the… users…so as to make correct adaptations.” More directly, a main recommendation of these exchanges was “to work with captains and ship owners from the beginning…including their views and allowing them to ‘own’ the project.”
Implementation: Understanding and allying with fishers
To that end, FVS then set out to fully understand the needs and priorities of the stakeholders whose buy-in would determine the pilot’s success or failure. They developed one of the first technological profiles of the Argentinean fishing sector (which contributed to later research). They tested the e-logbook on shore and on sea, with captains, vessel owners, and academics. This open outreach tied closely to a broader strategy of socializing the e-logbook and identifying “champion innovators.” Through events and demonstrations with official agencies and trade associations, FVS attempted to secure their support to roll out the app. Those institutions were interested but not ready to endorse at that early stage; they wanted to see positive results with the tool’s piloting first. So, at least initially, “the champion innovators were the captains and ship-owners” themselves, especially in the shrimp and anchovy fisheries of high importance economically and in terms of discards.
Implementation: The Traceability Legislation
At first, FVS focused on the bottom-up elements of their strategy, taking a “softer” approach to the top-down elements in 2021. They still advocated for traceability regulations, but with elections on the horizon and the pandemic dominating attention, the team chose not to push as hard as they could have.
Once legislative year 2022 began, however, FVS increased their efforts. Getting draft traceability legislation introduced required a torrent of advocacy activities. The FVS team presented to multiple legislative commissions, national and subnational executive bodies, deputies, and senators. They commented on options, joined civil society alliances, and published numerous interviews and articles. They also developed infographics and a key advocacy document, which concisely and clearly laid out the arguments for traceability in Argentina. The statistics and talking points in these materials made them essential resources for external allies.
The team made progress, but the draft law they supported eventually lost validity in that congressional session. FVS began again, re-energizing their advocacy efforts during 2023. As a result of this work, a new draft law was introduced that would mandate implementation and compliance with an EFIS for full traceability in the country. The law progressed all the way to approval by the Commission of Maritime, Fluvial, Fishing and Port Interests and the Commission of Budget and Finance of the Deputies Chamber.
Results: Deployment of the app, “dictamen” for the law
With updates and refinements from the stakeholders who tested it, the e-logbook was launched in its final version in November 2022. It is available in app stores and online at https://web.bepa.com.ar/. Subsequently, the FVS team rolled out the app via multiple avenues, including an event with fishers that featured one of the captains who helped develop it. They also demonstrated the app to fish production and export company CEOs, as well as the institutional stakeholders who had seen earlier versions. As of the end of the pilot, at least three vessels are still using it for internal data collection.
The traceability law was not passed during the pilot project period. However, the team did achieve “dictamen” status in 2023, which was a significant improvement over 2022. “Dictamen” means that all of the relevant legislative commissions in the Chamber of Deputies agreed to a final consensus text, and the approved text does include FVS’s suggestions. However, the full Chamber must still approve the law in order for it to continue to debate in the Senate. See Lesson 3 below for more.
Lessons learned and leveraged
Lesson 1 It is ok to take first steps first
The anti-corruption potential of this pilot rested on increasing transparency and accountability in fishing in Argentina. While one app and one law are only small parts of the needed system change, small changes can still be a good start. That is especially true if it builds internal capacity, experience, and relationships that position a team for future work. As FVS reported, the pilot “allowed us to work on traceability issues for the first time and position[s] FVS as a relevant player on the topic. Also, it consolidated the team… [and] created stronger bonds with other LAC offices…. This consolidation also allowed us to design a bigger strategy, beyond this project, for achieving traceability objectives with the sector….”
In terms of the e-logbook’s potential, the director of one supportive environmental organization shared this opinion with FVS: “generating instances of information and transparency forces the sector to make its activities more visible and accountable for each of the critical events in the process that seafood products go through… It is a tool to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and labor abuse, since it allows producers to be differentiated under the traceability system from those that are not and arise from illegal or unreported practices.”
Of course, that potential remains to be achieved, as other elements of the EFIS are developed and a national traceability law is (eventually) passed. The goal of the pilot was to demonstrate that elements of the EFIS could be successfully deployed. That leads to Lesson 2.
Lesson 2 Sell your solution by solving a need
The key to any technological tool’s success is usage, and the key to the e-logbook’s usage was that it solved a problem the potential users faced. The app was simpler and easier to use than existing, paper-based systems. Captains and decision-makers joined the effort because it improved their data and insight into their own operations. Fishers who export their products bought into the app because it provided data to comply with foreign requirements. And others participated simply because they saw others do so! For example, one key association was less than interested during the development of the e-logbook, but they scrambled to take part after it was made public because they did not want to be seen as falling behind.
As FVS put it, “active listening…is key…. Take into account the needs of the innovators. Explicitly refer to the benefits for all the sectors…to find the best mechanisms for communicating….”
Lesson 3 Persistence is a must
Despite setbacks, the FVS team stayed committed to passing the traceability law. When the 2022 bill lost validity because of a new congressional session, they repeated their strategy and got their priorities introduced in a new bill. Each push made a little more progress. One push led to getting one more deputy or senator on board. The next push convinced another legislative commission. Another secured support from the executive. The team kept pushing, eventually reaching the dictamen status described above.
As a result, although the pilot ended without the law being passed, the team is optimistic. “Now the Deputies chamber, in plenary, must sanction the dictamen into a law. We are confident that this will happen this year. Once this is achieved, the Senate must provide the final sanction…” On a promising note, the FVS team reported in their final report that, due to their previous advocacy work, the executive branch is now supporting the law. It seems likely, therefore, that the law will eventually pass, and FVS’s persistence will have contributed significantly to that pending achievement.
Annex: Final theory of change
The Fundación Vida Silvestre team would like to thank the following institutions for their collaboration:
- Valastro fishery
- Círculo de Políticas Ambientales
- Universidad Tecnológica Nacional – Mar del Plata
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