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The IUU Fishing Blog

Illegal Fishing, Europe and the Global Oceans

Operation Sparrow and the EU’s Fight Against IUU Fishing

Note: This blog post has been published on the IUU Fishing Blog and IUU Watch under the tile: ‘Operation Sparrow Brings An Important Message To The Fight Against IUU Fishing’

Awareness that cooperation is key for the successful governance of wild fisheries has increased exponentially in recent decades, and European Council Regulation 1005/2008, also known as the EU IUU Regulation, has been instrumental in fostering and incentivising such cooperation.

The IUU Regulation is Europe’s flagship law for the identification and control of IUU activities, products and interests. Crucially, the IUU Regulation includes measures to address a difficult issue: the participation of European interests in IUU fishing, including those conducted with vessels registered outside the EU.[1]

Adaptive legislative measures were taken in Spain in 2014 in response to the requirements of the Regulation.[2] This has permitted the Spanish government to undertake a series of operations aimed at addressing the suspected involvement of nationals in IUU fishing schemes involving three vessels: Kunlun, Yongding and Songhua.[3] All three had been documented conducting unauthorised fishing activities in waters regulated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).[4]

Three of the operations launched by Spain, Sparrow, Sparrow II and the latest, Banderas, are of an administrative character. A fourth, operation Yuyus, has been developed under the auspices of Spain’s National Criminal Court. These operations, coordinated with the assistance of Interpol, bring together the goodwill and expertise of several other countries, including Belize, New Zealand, Australia and Cape Verde, as well as public and non-public actors including NGOs.

The launch of the first of such operations, Sparrow, by Spanish Ministry of Agriculture and Environment, MAGRAMA, led to the announcement of unprecedented fines in respect of IUU fishing activities by Spanish persons in Antarctica.[5]  The administrative process, now drawn to a close, has resulted in combined penalties of €17,840,000 being formally imposed on several Spanish companies, namely  Vidal Armadores, Viarsa Energía, Viarsa Cartera, Primary Capital, Alimenta Corporación, Alimenta Túnidos, Gallega de Pesca Sostenible, Propegarvi, y Proyectos y Desarrollos Renovables as well as seven individuals.[6]  The financial penalties include sanctions for obstructing the work of officials and destroying documents during the investigations. In addition to sanctions of a financial nature, prohibitions to carry out fishing activities spanning between 5 and 23 years, and prohibitions to request public funds in connection with fishing activities spanning between 5 and 26 years have also been imposed.[7]

With this announcement, MAGRAMA has drawn Operation Sparrow to its intended conclusion.[8] Meanwhile, MAGRAMA has dealt another blow in the fight against IUU fishing, as vessels Northern Warrior and Antony, both linked to finding under Sparrow II, were seized in the port of Vigo on Friday 18th March as part of MAGRAMA’s Operation Banderas.[9] It has been reported that persons responsible for the operation of the vessels relied on forged documentation to access the port, and that forgeries had also been used to obtain fishing authorisations in the course of 2015. The vessels, which appear to be currently stateless, are being held subject to the payment of bonds of over € 1 Million.[10]

In parallel with the above operations, a criminal investigation has also been under way.[11] This investigation, named Yuyus by reference to IUU fishing, concerns suspected activities that are classified as infractions of Spanish penal law. Months of investigative work by operatives of the Spanish Guardia Civil and Interpol culminated on Monday the 14th, when down raids carried out on properties linked with the Vidal family resulted in the arrest and incarceration of six individuals who were later released on bail.[12] It has been widely reported that the infractions leading to the criminal charges would concern activities such as integration in a criminal organisation, money laundering, fraud, and unspecified activities amounting to environmental crimes recognised by Spanish law.[13]

Spain’s Minister for Agriculture, Food and Environment, Isabel Garcia Tejerina, has publicly congratulated MAGRAMA’s Fisheries Directorate General for their accomplishments, and highlighted the reception by the Directorate General of an ISO 9001/2015 certification in recognition of Spain’s quality management systems in respect of fisheries control. [14] This recognition confirms Spain’s leading role in the control of IUU fishing activities in Europe and abroad. [15]

The importance of Operation Sparrow does not lay only in the highly symbolic nature of its ambitious objective: to disable some of the most persistent and high profile transgressions against fisheries conservation. Time only will tell if Sparrow has been able to deliver its intended coup de grace. However, Sparrow sets a precedent that must also be framed against the background of the EU IUU Regulation: the law requires an unwavering commitment by EU member States not only for its effectiveness, but also for the establishment and development of credible long term internal and extraterritorial standards of cooperation. The extraordinary complexity of operations Sparrow, Sparrow II, Banderas and Yuyus, which have variously been assisted by at least fourteen countries,[16] underlines the essential role that international cooperation and sound legal frameworks play in the fight against IUU fishing.

Efforts to bring fairness and sustainability to the sector may be far from over. However, the extraordinary events of the past few months serve to remind all those invested in the fight against IUU fishing that this is a fight that can be won.


[1] The full text of the Regulation can be accessed via


[5] As reported on IUU Watch on December the 24th 2015:


[8] It is at present unclear whether the vessels Songua, Yongding and Kunlun, or any property of the sanctioned companies or individuals has been impounded.

[10] Ibid

[11] Audiencia Nacional:

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