Threats: Pirate fishing

Publication - April 8, 2008
The term ‘pirate fishing’ can bring to mind images of parrots, gold and adventure, but pirates of today are known for only one attribute: their ability to fish illegally and exhaustively. Pirate fishing fleets – more precisely known as Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing – are pillaging our oceans in a ruthless and bloodthirsty pursuit of high profit.

Pirate fishing fleets are often owned by secondary companies to obscure their identity and evade accountability. Their vessels generally fly under “flags of convenience,” the flag of a country with low ship taxes or lax shipping laws. On the high seas (international waters), ships are only required to follow the laws of the country under whose flag they fly, and whatever international agreements that country may have signed. Certain countries are more than happy to sell their flag to rogue ships and then look the other way while they plunder the seas for valuable commercial fish. Unregulated ships sailing under these “flags of convenience” are contributing to a crisis in our oceans, as management attempts and conservation efforts of endangered and overfished species are undermined.

Not surprisingly, the global pirate fishing fleet was believed to have doubled in size between 1991 and 2001, driven by the profits to be made off increasingly rare species of fish. These ships don’t have to pay for the costly insurance, safety equipment, licenses and trade monitoring programs that legal ships do, and are also known for their crews of “zombie pirates,” who work in hazardous conditions for slave wages. But don’t be fooled by their rag-tag appearance. Pirate ships are often owned and operated by savvy businessmen, with a sophisticated network of supply and storage ships allowing longer stints at sea and the ability to elude fines and punishment in port where monitoring most often occurs.

The very nature of pirate fishing makes it difficult to gauge its overall impact, but it is undoubtedly bad news for our oceans. It is estimated that pirates take 25 per cent of the global fish catch, with a fleet of over 1,300 industrial scale ships. As governments attempt to restrict legal fishermen, pirate ship numbers are growing to meet consumer demand for high-value fish, such as bluefin tuna, Patagonian toothfish and orange roughy. It is estimated that in 2000, stocks of Patagonian toothfish were overfished by 45 per cent of the legal catch. In 2006, more than a third of the total amount of tuna landed was caught illegally. Where pirate fishing is most common, stock health is incredibly difficult to determine as unreported catches spoil any officially reported data. Once pirate fleets have fished out one area, they simply sail on to the next bounty- until the bounty runs out.

With flags from one country, owners from another, and fishing nets all over the high seas, this is a problem that clearly calls for international coordination. Loopholes in international laws that allow unscrupulous countries to sell their flags for a quick profit must be eliminated and ports and markets must be closed to illegal ships and their catches.