Toothy, tasty and under threat

Time to act against plunder of Toothfish

Feature story - 28 October, 2002
A tasty fish with a toothy grin is prized loot for modern pirates. With a market value of US$10 a kilogram, toothfish are on the losing end of a massive international and illegal treasure hunt. Even member countries of the regional conservation commission have joined the hunt while the fish stocks verge on collapse.

Patagonian toothfish

Each year as they swim the deep blue waters off the South American andSubantarctic continental shelves they are met by a massive attack frompirate fishers. More than half of toothfish are illegally caught. Forfish that don't breed till they are about ten years old, this severeoverexploitation is devastating for the species.

Toothfish can live to be 50 years old, but their chances of reachingthis ripe old age are growing slimmer. Once their ratherferocious-looking heads are removed and their bodies cleaned andde-scaled, the moist, oily white flesh of Patagonian and Antarctictoothfish becomes a delicacy that can fetch more than US$10/kg amongthe trendy dining crowd.

But before plunging their forks in, fish-lovers might want to knowtheir meal is actually the victim of a massive international andillegal resource grab by pirate fishers. Experts say that if thisplunder goes unchecked, stocks of Patagonian toothfish, also known asChilean Sea Bass, will collapse by 2010 to 2012.

What's our name today?

To understand this exploitation is to glimpse into the shady, shiftingworld of pirate fishers, where vessels' names and nationalities changewith the seasons - or even the days. One Greenpeace survey thatincluded 34 vessels found ten flag of convenience (FOC) vessels, twowith no name at all, three vessels with two names, two with the samename, 27 which displayed no country or port or registry, and nine whichhad been sighted previously engaged in illegal operations.

With a fishery so openly and blatantly violated, finding legitimate fishers is actually the more difficult task.

Pirate collaborators

Right now Uruguay, Russia, Korea and Seychelles are the ultimateaccomplices of these fish pirates. Vessels carrying these countries'flags are fishing illegally within CCAMLR waters (governed by theCommission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources)and are then laundering their catch through the CCAMLR trade rules bylying about where they caught their fish. By authorising catches forthese vessels, these countries are undermining CCAMLR's management andsupporting pirate fishing.

Belize - still open for business

Belizewas the world's most fish pirate friendly country and the biggestpirate player in the toothfish fishery for a number of years.

As of December 2001, the nation had in its registry an outrageouslylarge fleet for a tiny nation - 481 fishing vessels - slightly biggerthan that of China. In a global survey of vessels caught illegallyfishing, 50 percent were FOC, and 36 percent carried the flag ofBelize. Cambodia, Bolivia and Equatorial Guinea are other FOC countriesthat have increased their fleets since 1999. Greenpeace has chased twopirate fishing vessels with the Belize flag out of the Southern ocean.

Last year, Belize announced it was getting out of the dirty flag ofconvenience fishing business, ditching five notorious fishing piratesfrom its shipping register, buckling under pressure from Greenpeace andgovernments. However, only two weeks ago another Belize-flagged pirate,Noemi, turned up in Mozambique to offload toothfish. So much forgetting out of the business.

Growing problem

Measures have been taken to control the illegal goldrush on Patagonianand Antarctic toothfish. Yet illegal, unreported and unregulatedfishing rose by at least 30 percent in 2001 according to CCAMLR, theregional body responsible for toothfish conservation.

One major problem is that many nations fishing, trading andimporting toothfish are not members of the CCAMLR club, and so considerthemselves exempt from its rules. CCAMLR has 24 members, but there are57 nations in some way involved in the toothfish trade.

A wake up call for the CCAMLR club

But it is not just those countries outside the conservation commissionthat flaunt the rules. Some CCAMLR members are also involved in theillegal toothfishery. Vessels of three members and of observerSeychelles are lying about where they catch toothfish.

In the past two and a half years vessels from Russia, Uruguay andKorea have stolen 13,799 tonnes, (US$150 million) of toothfish fromCCAMLR waters, in addition to their legal catches. Vessels from theSeychelles took 7,433 tonnes (US$72 million) during that time.

In fact, by laundering their catches through CCAMLR's catchdocumentation scheme, pirates can demand higher prices for the fishthey catch.

Since May 2000, vessels from these countries have plundered CCAMLRsub-Antarctic waters for over $200 million. We believe much of thecatch was taken from Australian, French and South African territorialwaters.

This is a more lucrative scam than drug trafficking, and the toothfish and seabird populations pay the penalty.

Winged by-catch

There'sa sorry subplot to the toothfish story. As fish pirates empty the seas,they also empty the skies. When fishing vessels run up to 20,000 baitedhooks off their sterns, sea birds swoop in to grab the bait but mayalso swallow the hooks and be pulled under water and drowned. As manyas 93,000 seabirds were caught and drowned on the lines of illegal,unreported and unregulated fishers' longlines during the 2000-01 season.

This includes endangered species of albatross, the world's largestseabirds. These great ocean wanderers have a wingspan of up to 3.5metres and live up to 85 years, mating for life. Some, such as theAmsterdam albatross which numbers only 10 to 16 pairs, are declining sorapidly they are on the brink of extinction.

Mending holes in the regulatory net

One important solution could make use of a United Nations treaty thatregulates international trade in plant and animals products, theConvention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

A major loophole could be closed by listing toothfish under CITESAppendix II. This could effectively close off trade routes throughcountries which are not members of CCAMLR by extending its rules tothese countries through CITES. It would also cut off laundering schemesdevised by the fish pirates since CCAMLR began to take steps to tightenthe toothfish trade.

This puts lucrative markets driving the gold rush toothfish fishery out of the pirates' reach.

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Pirate Fishing, Plundering the Oceans pdf report, 1.1MB