Local authorities hinder seafood exports to EU

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Seafood exporters find it tough to get catch certificates that the EU market now requires, and they are blaming local authorities

Two fishermen from Ly Son Island in central Vietnam at work on their boat

A container of clams shipped by the Sagoda Seafood Co. got stuck in a port in Spain last week.

The company's long term customer refused to clear the shipment at customs until it received a catch certificate for the 100-ton container from the Vietnamese seafood processor.

The certificate is a new requirement that applies to seafood exports from Vietnam to the European market since early this year. The rule was introduced by the European Commission (EC) in 2003 to eradicate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing at sea.

Nguyen Huu Nghia, Tien Giang Province-based Sagoda's quality manager, said the firm approached provincial authorities but they refused to grant the certificate for two reasons.

First, the province has, since early this month, banned the catching of clams in order to protect the source and second, the certificate was not required because the clams had been raised and caught in a process that used no machines.

The firm then turned to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development for help, claiming the clams for the shipment were bought in March when it had yet to sign contracts with the Spanish customer.

The Vietnamese ministry raised the issue with the EC while telling local authorities to solve the issue, and as a result the shipment was passed through customs after a week.

Nam said many local businesses found it difficult to get the catch certificates from local authorities as the requirements were tough for the producers or processors, especially those who indirectly get the catch or produce from fishermen, a common practice in Vietnam.

They found it difficult to get the daily log from captains who were not used to reporting their trip's details to businesses or traders instead of concerned regulatory authorities, Nam said.

The catch certificates now meant "a victory" for businesses, said the representative of a seafood firm in a central province.

The representative, who did not want to be named, said given the scenario of fishing limits, a business with the certificates would have more opportunities than their rivals to win contracts with international clients.

Local authorities have granted 1,160 catch certificates to exporters in 20 out of 28 coastal provinces across the country, according to the ministry.

Vu Van Tam, deputy minister of agriculture and rural development, said the ministry sympathized with local exporters facing these problems and was trying its best to help them deal with the new regulations and requirements.

He said the ministry was preparing new guidelines where the current bottlenecks in licensing and fishing management by local authorities would be removed.

Meanwhile, local authorities have been asked not to issue any new regulations beyond the ministry's current rules on fishing, processing and exporting to the bloc, he said.

Local authorities were wrong to include hygiene certificates in the requirements that exporters have to fulfill, Tam said, adding the certificates were only needed to assure quality for export products, not to grant the catch certificates.

Vietnam shipped 164,000 tons worth of seafood worth $502.58 million to the bloc in the first half of this year, which accounts for 21.5 percent of the country's seafood export value of $2.4 billion, according to VASEP.

It cost VND10 million (US$500) each day that the container had to be stored in a warehouse at the Spanish port, said Nghia, adding the firm is worried the same thing will happen when its two other containers, part of the contracts signed with the Spanish customer, are shipped.

Local seafood producers and processors have faced several export barriers since the new rule took effect. They said the barriers have emerged in licensing and fishing management by local authorities, threatening their contracts with European customers.

Vo Thanh Hiep, director of the Kien Giang-based Hiep Phat Seafood Co., said fishing quota allocations among provinces where businesses have different capacities and competitive advantages in exports were not fair.

Hiep said the allocation was five times higher for the cities of Da Nang and Hai Phong as well as Phu Yen Province than Kien Giang Province where the catch is limited to 1.3 tons of seafood per vessel per trip. This has caused a shortage of seafood for processing facilities in the province.

Nguyen Thi Anh, chairwoman of the Song Tien Seafood Co., complained that a vessel limited to this volume cannot cover the costs of an offshore fishing trip of 20 to 30 days. She said the volumes should be raised to ensure profits. Anh added businesses and also authorities are taking more time respectively to apply for and grant the licenses for a fishing fleet. She said fishing licenses should be granted to a fleet and not to individual vessels as is being done in Thailand.

Pham Hoai Nam, deputy general secretary of Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Processors (VASEP), said Vietnam's seafood exports to the European bloc dropped slightly by 9 percent in volume and 11 percent in value in the first half of this year, compared to increases of 17.1 and 17 percent respectively in the country's total export volume and value during the same period.

The new rule has been partly responsible for the decline in exports to the EU, Nam told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Local authorities refused to grant catch certificates, which is a kind of visa for exports to the bloc, if the businesses lacked a fishing license, a daily log from the fishing vessels, and a hygiene certificate for the shipments.

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