Cracking Down on the Ocean’s Pirate Fishermen

(Credit Getty Images)

Time, May 22, 2010
By Bryan Walsh

The oceans are being emptied of fish. A forthcoming United Nations report lays out the stark numbers: only around 25% of commercial stocks are in a healthy or even reasonably healthy state. Some 30% of fish stocks are considered collapsed, and 90% of large predatory fish — like the bluefin tuna so prized by sushi aficionados — have disappeared since the middle of the 20th century. More than 60% of assessed fish stocks are in need of rebuilding, and some researchers estimate that if current trends hold, virtually all commercial fisheries will have collapsed by mid century.

“Fisheries across the world are being plundered, or exploited at unsustainable rates,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

In some respects, Steiner could have stopped at “plundered,” because as much damage as the legal, commercial fishing trade has wrought on the oceans, it’s the illegal trade that could spell their doom. Legal fishermen — the everyday farmers of the seas — have licenses they must protect and laws they must obey. But illegal fishing — often done on the high seas where regulations are lax and catch limits can be exceeded with impunity, or in the coastal waters of developing nations, which lack the ability to fight back — abides by rules of its own. Now, a team led by Stefan Flothmann of the Pew Environment Group has published a study in the May 20 issue of Science showing just how hard stopping the illegal fishing scourge will be.

There are a lot of factors driving the rising global demand for fish. A growing global population needs ready sources of protein, and fish — generally low in fat and high in nutrients — is a natural. Plus, the worldwide explosion in the popularity of sushi means that even people who never liked fish before have developed a taste for it. Global seafood consumption has doubled over the past 40 years, and the sushi boom has tracked that trend.

But there’s also a major problem with overcapacity — or the simple excess of fishermen — thanks to the $27 billion in subsidies given to the worldwide fishing industry each year. Those subsidies — especially the billions that go to cheap diesel fuel that makes factory fishing on the high seas possible at all–have created an industry bigger than the oceans can support. The U.N. estimates that the global fleet consists of more than 20 million boats, ranging from tiny subsistence outfits to massive trawlers. Together they have a fishing capacity 1.8 to 2.8 times larger than the oceans can sustainably support. Our tax money is essentially paying fishermen to strip mine the seas.

Cutting the subsidies or restricting the boats would go a long way toward solving the problem — but not if the illegal trade, which accounts for anything from 11 to 26 million tons of fish a year, or about one-fifth of the reported legal catch, can’t also be brought under control. Steps in that direction have been taken. In November 2009, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) adopted the Port State Measurement Agreement (PSMA), which requires countries to close their ports to ships involved in illegal or unregulated fishing. The idea is simple: if illegal boats are denied ports where they can sell their catch and refuel, black market fishing should dry up.

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