Toothfish Vanish into Illegal Fishing Boats

SYDNEY, Australia, August 14, 2001 (ENS) - An investigation into global trade in the Southern Ocean's "white gold," Patagonian toothfish, has revealed it is running at twice the level previously thought, and much of this catch is illegal. The Patagonian toothfish appears on the restaurant menus of North America as Chilean sea bass, a delectable dish that brings a high price.

The wildlife trade monitoring organization TRAFFIC said the illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) catch is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Chilean sea bass (Photo courtesy Vis Seafoods)
In the new report, TRAFFIC researcher Glenn Sant estimates the total trade in toothfish at 59,000 tonnes in 1999/2000, and said the IUU portion could amount to 33,000 tonnes.

This is around four times the IUU catch estimated by the responsible international organization, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Resources (CCAMLR), which had claimed the problem was declining.

Instead, the figures show the illegal catch is running at least as high as it ever was.

TRAFFIC's report is the most comprehensive independent assessment yet made of the scale of the booming global toothfish industry, which sees the big, white fleshed fish filleted down for the plates of consumers in Japan, North America, and the European Union.

The report found a total of 14 countries reported catches of toothfish, while 11 were involved in the illegal trade. This remains dominated by Spanish owned fishing interests through flag-of-convenience states such as Panama.

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Patagonian toothfish (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Funded by the Australian government, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Packard Foundation, the report said a concerted effort by CCAMLR countries has contributed to a decline in IUU fishing by their own fleets. It is also possible others have been discouraged by the increased surveillance.

"However increased surveillance may have relocated rather than eliminated the IUU effort," said the report. "A more likely explanation in the decline in the CCAMLR estimates of IUU fishing lies in the shortcomings of the estimates themselves."

It said CCAMLR had acknowledged it is increasingly difficult to estimate the IUU catch. Fish are being trans-shipped at sea, and landed under different species names.

There are also signs that more pressure is being placed on remote waters outside any national fisheries zone, such as the Ob and Lena Banks which lie northwest of eastern Antarctica's Orydz Bay.

TRAFFIC said the paper trail from fishing boat to market needs to be strengthened, and widened to cover all trading nations.

"CCAMLR's management measures have not prevented an increase in IUU catch in 2000," the report said. "There is no room for complacency in management of this species."

The Antarctic and Southern Oceans Coalition, which represents environmental organizations in 50 countries, last year called for a moratorium on all toothfish fishing. TRAFFIC has not followed suit, but it has urged consideration of the use of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to control the fishery.

{Published in cooperation with The Antarctican}