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Wake Up! Our Fish is Being Stolen

Wake Up! Our Fish is Being Stolen

CATCHLINE.. South Pacific countries are sitting on a time bomb if pirate fishing is not contained within two to three years as key species of fish in the Pacific Ocean will be critically over fished.

The Pacific is among the last relatively healthy tuna fisheries in the world. As fishing stocks collapse around the globe, fleets are moving en masse to the Pacific, rather than fixing the problems in their own regions.

We are now faced with immense pressure to satisfy a growing global appetite for tuna. Scientific advice shows the Pacific will not be able to sustain the current effort and fishing activity currently being undertaken by Distant Water Fishing Nations (DWFN’s) like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, US and EU and must immediately reduce fishing effort.

The Pacific is now following the foot-prints of other collapsed fisheries as we are now dealing with the most devastating problem a fishery can go through - overfishing. Already two key species of tuna: Bigeye and Yellowfin are in an overfished state.

One significant contributor to the overfishing problem and one that is most relevant to Pacific Island states is Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUU) or commonly known as Pirate Fishing. Pirate fishing is vague, secretive and thrives on loopholes making it hard to detect. They are a menace to the Pacific robbing the region of fishery resources that we are trying to maintain. Most devastatingly, the financial returns from Pirate fishers are non-existent. No one actually knows how much is being taken out from the Pacific and how much illegal catch lands in the main markets. The Pacific has not only been stolen from BUT it is being undermined by efforts that are put in place to try and maintain and sustain the fishery.

Pirate fishing impacts most heavily on Pacific Island states that see none of the profits (which largely go to companies based in distant water fishing states) and receive no tax income, yet pay the costs through a diminished resource and lost potential catches. A conservative estimate of the market value of pirate fishing catches is between 5-15 per cent of all catch from AU$191 million to AU$571 million (US$134 to US$400 million) per year. This is up to 400 per cent more than Pacific Island states earn in access fees and licences

Despite various stop checks placed by regulatory authorities it does not seem watertight enough to eradicate pirate fishing from South Pacific waters.

Earlier this year two South Pacific courts dished out fines for foreign vessels caught fishing illegally in South Pacific waters.

Three foreign boat captains were fined US$102.564 by a Papeete court for illegally fishing off Clipperton Island, a French possession.

In the second incident a Fiji based company Waikava Marine Industries Limited was fined $30,000 for doing the same.

This has sent alarm bells ringing as South Pacific countries are sitting on a time bomb if pirate fishing is not contained, regional efforts to combat overfishing will be futile.

Armed and masked, scouring the oceans, stealing food from hungry families – modern day pirates are a far cry from the glamour of Hollywood movies. But they are a multi billion-dollar reality for many communities that can least afford to be robbed.

The skull and cross bones pennant they proudly fly easily identifies fictitious pirates. In contrast, real life pirates hide their identity and origin, ignore or break the rules and often – sail the flags of countries that ask no questions about the manner and scale of their fishing. Just with the click of a computer mouse, for as little as US$500 and sometimes in just 24 hours, flags can be bought over the Internet from countries like Malta, Panama, Belize, Honduras and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

While they may operate in a murky world of corruption, pirate vessels, their owners and operators are not impossible to track down. Around 80 different countries play host to them – including the European Union and Taiwan, Panama, Belize and Honduras. International enforcement could shut down this trade, giving income and food back to those who have earned it. But little is done. Repeated demands by environmental and justice groups to effectively outlaw pirate fishing have fallen on deaf ears. Despite the various international commitments and plans of action approved in the last few years to fight pirate fishing, the activity of these illegal ships has not decreased but rather increased in the region.

And it is not only an issue of theft. Environmental destruction goes hand in hand with pirate fishing. Because they operate, quite literally, off the radar of any enforcement, some of the fishing techniques they use are destroying ocean life.

The pirates fishing activities compound the global environmental damage from destructive fisheries. Worldwide, legal and illegal vessels kill hundreds of thousands of other species as they fish. Ships using ‘ long-lines‘ - fishing lines over 100 km long, baited with thousands of hooks lined up in a row and pulled behind the boat. Anything that sees the bait as food is caught – other fish, whales, dolphins, turtles, sharks and the albatrosses that dive for it and are drowned, caught on the hooks. 40,000 turtles die every year in this manner and hundreds of thousands of seabirds. Many of these species are being pushed to the brink of extinction simply because of this needlessly reckless practice.

Pirate fishing impacts most heavily on Pacific Island states that see none of the profits and receive no tax income, yet pay the costs through a diminished resource and lost potential catches.

A conservative estimate of the market value of pirate fishing catches is from AU$191 million to AU$571 million (US$134 to US$400 million) per year. This is up to 400 per cent more than Pacific Island states earn in access fees and licences. The majority of this pirate fishing occurs within national waters of Pacific Island states, mostly by fishing vessels from distant water fishing states that are signatories to the WCPFC.(1)

The many loopholes in international law are exploited by pirate fishers and make enforcement difficult for small island states. Massive exclusive economic zones and minimal resources make monitoring and law enforcement difficult. Pacific Island states and other members of the WCPFC need to develop regional solutions that deliver the best result for the least expense.

Apart form being a mean of advancing economic well-being through both commercial and subsistence fisheries; it is an important source of employment and income generation for coastal populations and for women.

A report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers in 2005 estimates that 15,000 Pacific islanders are formally employed on tuna vessels and in tuna processing plants. Moreover, total direct and indirect tuna-related employment is estimated between 1,000 – that is – between 5 and 8 per cent of all wage employment in the region.

Healthy and well managed fisheries are vital for food security, providing an important source of protein for local populations. Pirate fishing, on the other hand, leaves communities without much needed food and income and the marine environment smashed and empty. Nations which are economically dependent upon their fisheries such as will of course be the first to be ruined. It is disturbingly easy to become a fishing pirate and even easier to evade capture.

Pirate fishing is a complex problem requiring varied responses at sea, in ports, in the market, at home and away. Solutions must engage all involved, from the consumer who eats the fish to the merchant banker who finances the fishing vessels.

Setting the pace Australia, New Zealand and France have signed a joint declaration to co-operate in a bid to mount maritime surveillance in the South Pacific region to combat pirate fishing.

The UK Government week also announced new funding of about US$1 million to help support an international initiative to deal with pirate fishing activities that cost more than US$9 billion in lost fish stocks globally.

But whether this is enough is questionable.

Greenpeace has recommendations that attack pirate fishing on six fronts. Many are regional initiatives, sharing the load between developed and developing states.

• Ports must refuse to launder pirate fish or service pirate fishing boats – if they cannot land their catch or service their boats then the whole dirty business falls apart.

• All supermarkets, fish markets and fishmongers need to be able to prove they are not handling stolen goods, by being able to trace the history of the fish they sell. Suppliers who cannot should not be allowed to sell the fish on to consumers.

• Fishing boats should be controlled through electronic surveillance and governments must take responsibility for the activities of their boats. The authorities must immediately share information to stop pirate catches getting into the market.

• Often illegal boats never come into port and instead trans-ship their fish at sea – if this practice was made illegal it would be harder for pirates to move their illegal catches around the globe.

• Some boats and companies are caught time and again breaking the rules. These boats should be named on a single, publicly available list so all nations are able to refuse them services or prevent them from landing their catches.

• International aid and assistance should be given to developing nations to protect their rich fishing grounds from the pirate fleets. As fishing grounds in the Northern hemisphere have been fished out, fishing boats have moved further South, into the waters of poorer countries that are not equipped to fully protect their fisheries.

Pacific Island states are already active in the fight against pirate fishing and many have implemented these recommendations.

The Pacific is at a crossroads. One path leads towards sustainable and equitable fisheries, healthy oceans and stable and prosperous island communities. The other path leads to the collapse of major tuna fisheries and loss of livelihood and food supply for the people of the Pacific, threatening the economic stability and future of island communities.

Pirate fishing can be stopped. Governments can outlaw flags of convenience and refuse entry to fishing and supply vessels. It is a matter of political will to deliver the kind of enforcement that is needed to protect the environment and the communities that depend upon them.


(1) Editors Note: WCPC stands for Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. The objective of the Convention is to ensure, through effective management, the long-term conservation and sustainable use of highly migratory fish stocks in the western and central Pacific Ocean in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement. For this purpose, the Convention establishes a Commission for the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

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