Climbing the Tasmanian Totem Pole for the toothfish

Feature story - 1 November, 2002
It's one of the most difficult vertical climbs in Australia - the country leading the drive to list the toothfish under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It overlooks the ocean to the south of Australia where massive amounts of pirate fishing is driving the long-lived toothfish towards commercial extinction.

Greenpeace climbers scale the Totem Pole in Tasmania, Australia to highlight attention to the pirate fishing trade during this week's CITES meeting.

It's a 65 meter natural dolerite formation called the Totem Pole. And today two Greenpeace climbers braved it to send a message: "Pirate fishing trades away ocean life!".

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is the regional body responsible for toothfish conservation. But it doesn't regulate fishing outside waters of its member states, and it is having a hard time stopping "pirates" who fly flags of convenience and fish illegally anywhere they can get away with it.

Big money can be made catching toothfish, which, frankly, is just too tasty for its own good. In the past two and a half years vessels from CCAMLR members Russia, Uruguay and the republic of Korea have stolen 13,799 tonnes of toothfish from CCAMLR waters (while claiming that they caught their fish elsewhere). Non-member the Seychelles has taken 7,433 tonnes. The total value of the pirate catch by vessels from these countries during that time is estimated at $US200 million wholesale.

The toothfish lives for 50 years (if given the chance), and does not breed until it's at least 10 years old - so, like other species that are slow to reproduce, it is especially vulnerable to overfishing. If the fishing pirates are not shut down, toothfish stocks are headed for collapse.

Plus, although we all picture pirates as bird friendly, with a parrot on their shoulder, during the past year the real life pirates killed up to 93,000 Southern Ocean seabirds, which were caught or tangled in their fishing gear.

As Sarah Duthie put it from Australia, "While this climb may look dangerous, our climbers are perfectly safe, unlike toothfish and seabird populations which are in serious danger from pirate fishing".

If the toothfish is listed under CITIES it will close the ports of the 160 member nations to these pirates by requiring all fisheries to produce documentation of their catch. While some governments (such as the Australian) have pledged to support listing of the toothfish - the idea also faces opposition from others (Norway) and even some members of CCAMLR.

Fortunately, you can help by sending a fax to the US CITIES delegation. Toothfish is a popular dish in the United States - where it is sold as Chilean Seabass (guess it sounds tastier that way) - and US support for proper toothfish management is key to getting the fish listed.