Tag Archives: unregulated fishing

Fishing to Death

Fishing vessel. image from wikipedia

Under international law the high seas, which span 64% of the surface of the ocean, are defined as “the common heritage of mankind”. This definition might have provided enough protection if the high seas were still beyond mankind’s reach. But the arrival of better trawlers and whizzier mapping capabilities over the past six decades has ushered in a fishing free-for-all. Hauls from the high seas are worth $16 billion annually. Deprived of a chance to replenish themselves, stocks everywhere pay the price: almost 90% are fished either to sustainable limits or beyond. And high-seas fishing greatly disturbs the sea bed: the nets of bottom trawlers can shift boulders weighing as much as 25 tonnes….

A fresh approach is needed. Slashing fishing subsidies is the most urgent step. In total these come to $30 billion a year, 70% of which are doled out by richer countries. By reducing fuel costs, subsidies bring the high seas within reach for a few lucky trawlers, largely from the developed world. Just ten countries, including America, France and Spain, received the bulk of the bounty from high-seas catches between 2000 and 2010, even though Africa has more fishermen than Europe and the Americas combined. That is unfair and short-sighted.

The next step is to close off more areas to fishing. As of 2014 less than 1% of the high seas enjoyed a degree of legal protection. A review of 144 studies published since 1994 suggests that to preserve and restore ecosystems, 30% of the oceans should be designated as “marine protected areas” (MPAs). Individual countries can play their part, by creating reserves within territorial waters: last year Britain created the world’s largest MPA, an area bigger than California off the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific. But to get anywhere near that 30% share, mechanisms must be found to close off bits of the high seas, too. The UN’s members have rightly agreed to work out how to do so…

So in parallel with efforts to protect wild stocks, another push is needed: to encourage the development of aquaculture, the controlled farming of fish. In 2014, for the first time, more fish were farmed for human consumption than were caught in the wild; farmed-fish output now outstrips global beef production. Unfortunately, feedstocks are often poor and storage facilities inadequate. …Eventually, efficient fish-farming will be the best guardian of stocks on the high seas.

Marine Management: Net Positive,  Economist, July  16, 2016, at 13

Blowing Up Poaching Fishing Boats

Airline

The tiny Pacific nation of Palau, fighting a rising tide of illegal fishing in its waters, has set fire to four boats of Vietnamese caught poaching sea cucumbers and other marine life in its waters. Palau’s president, Tommy Remengesau Jr., said..he hopes to turn most of the island nation’s territorial waters into a national marine sanctuary, banning commercial fishing and exports apart from limited areas to be used by domestic fishermen and tourists. “We wanted to send a very strong message. We will not tolerate any more these pirates who come and steal our resources,” Remengesau said in a phone interview with The Associated Press from Washington, D.C., where he was visiting.

The country created the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009, but until recently had only one patrol boat to help protect its great hammerheads, leopard sharks and more than 130 other species of shark and rays fighting extinction.

The four boats destroyed  were among 15 Palau authorities have caught fishing illegally in their waters since 2014  with loads of sharks and shark fins, lobsters, sea cucumbers and reef fish. Several of the boats that it seized, stripped of their fishing gear, are due to carry 77 crew members of the boats back to Vietnam.  Remengesau said that the stream of poachers showed that just stripping the rogue boats of their nets and confiscating their catches was not enough”I think it’s necessary to burn the boats,” he said.

Palau, about 600 miles miles east of the Philippines, is one of the world’s smallest countries, its 20,000 people scattered across a tropical archipelago of 250 islands that is considered a biodiversity hotspot. In 2012, its Rock Islands Southern Lagoon was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Driven by rising demand from China and elsewhere in Asia, overfishing threatens many species of fish. ..[A]bout a fifth of the global market for marine products caught and sold, or about $23.5 billion, is caught illegally.  Advances in telecommunications and vessel tracking technology have improved surveillance, but enforcing restrictions on unauthorized fishing is costly and difficult, especially given the many “pockets” of high seas in the area….From Palau to Japan is a vast expanse of seas that nobody controls and nobody owns, areas that serve as refuges for illegal fishing vessels.

One way to counter that tactic is to create a “geofence” using vessel identification systems that could trigger alerts when vessels cross into national waters.

Nearby Indonesia also is taking harsher action, recently blowing up and sinking 41 foreign fishing vessels from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, as a warning against poaching in the country’s waters.

In Hanoi, Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh recently told reporters the government was seeking to protect the rights of the fishermen. He urged other governments to “render humanitarian treatment toward the Vietnamese fishing trawlers and fishermen on the basis of international law as well as humanitarian treatment toward fishermen who were in trouble at sea.”  While burning and sinking such ships seems drastic, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has backed such moves, ruling that countries can be held liable for not taking necessary measures to prevent illegal, unreported or unregulated, so-called IUU, fishing operations by their vessels in the waters of other countries.

In a report on IUU fishing last year, the Indonesia government outlined a slew of tactics used by poachers, including fake use of Indonesian flags on foreign vessels, forgery of documents and use of bogus fishing vessels using duplicate names and registration numbers of legitimate ships.

Excerpts from Elaine KurtenbachPalau burns Vietnamese boats caught fishing illegally, Associated Press, June 12, 2015

Slavery and the Fishing Industry

slavery. image from wikipedia

Maung Toe, an immigrant from Myanmar, laboured unpaid for six months on a Thai ship fishing illegally in Indonesian waters…naval patrols came close, but the crew would evade them. He had been forced aboard at gunpoint and sold by a broker to the captain for $900. It was the first time he had ever seen the sea.

Mr Maung’s story is told by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a charity, in a recent study of trafficking and piracy in Thailand’s seafood industry. The country hosts tens of thousands of trafficking victims, by conservative estimates, many from Myanmar, as well as from Cambodia and Bangladesh. Many of them sweat on trawlers or in vast fish-processing plants. Some were duped by recruitment agents; a few were kidnapped. Others are migrants who were waylaid by traffickers while travelling through Thailand.

Overfishing is partly to blame. Average catches in Thai waters have fallen by 86% since the industry’s large expansion in the 1960s. Such meagre pickings have driven local workers out of the industry and encouraged captains to seek ultra-cheap alternatives. Boats now fish farther afield and stay at sea for months at a time, making slavery harder to spot.

International pressure is mounting. The American government ranks Thailand among the least effective of all countries in fighting trafficking, along with Iran, North Korea and Syria. Food firms in Europe and North America—who together purchase about a third of Thailand’s fish exports—seem concerned. Last year the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, promised tougher enforcement. At a press conference this month, the authorities said they had identified nearly 600 trafficking victims in 2014.

But cynics worry that the military government in power since a coup last May will turn a blind eye again once the immediate threat to exports fades. Frank discussion of the business seems to be discouraged. Two journalists in Phuket—an Australian and a Thai—may face a defamation trial for republishing sentences from a Reuters article alleging that navy personnel had helped traffickers. In January  2015 campaigners forced the government to drop a plan to put convicts to work on fishing boats—a policy probably intended to dampen demand for bonded labour. A broader shift towards respecting human rights seems some way off.

Excerpts, Slavery and seafood: Here be monsters, Economist, Mar. 14, 2015, at 62

Catching Illegal Fishers: Yongding, Kunlun and Songhua

Yongding illegal fishing vessel.  image interpol

 

 

From INTERPOL: Between 6 and 13 January, 2005 a Royal New Zealand Naval Patrol spotted the vessels – the Yongding, the Kunlun and the Songhua – hauling gill nets laden with toothfish in an area regulated by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) where such fishing methods are prohibited.

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The Pew Charitable Trusts, an American research group… reckons that around one fish in five sold in restaurants or shops has been caught outside the law. That may amount to 26m tonnes of them every year, worth more than $23 billion. This illegal trade, though not the only cause of overfishing, is an important one…

The new monitoring system has been developed by the Satellite Applications Catapult, a British government-backed innovation centre based at Harwell, near Oxford, in collaboration with Pew. In essence, it is a big-data project, pulling together and cross-checking information on tens of thousands of fishing boats operating around the world. At its heart is what its developers call a virtual watch room, which resembles the control centre for a space mission. A giant video wall displays a map of the world, showing clusters of lighted dots, each representing a fishing boat.

The data used to draw this map come from various sources, the most important of which are ships’ automatic identification systems (AIS). These are like the transponders carried by aircraft. They broadcast a vessel’s identity, position and other information to nearby ships and coastal stations, and also to satellites. An AIS is mandatory for all commercial vessels, fishing boats included, with a gross tonnage of more than 300. Such boats are also required, in many cases, to carry a second device, known as a VMS (vessel monitoring system). This transmits similar data directly to the authorities who control the waters in which the vessel is fishing, and carrying it is a condition of a boat’s licence to fish there. Enforcement of the AIS regime is patchy, and captains do sometimes have what they feel is a legitimate reason for turning it off, in order not to alert other boats in the area to profitable shoals. But the VMS transmits only to officialdom, so there can be no excuse for disabling it. Switching off either system will alert the watch room to potential shenanigans.

The watch room first filters vessels it believes are fishing from others that are not. It does this by looking at, for example, which boats are in areas where fish congregate. It then tracks these boats using a series of algorithms that trigger an alert if, say, a vessel enters a marine conservation area and slows to fishing speed, or goes “dark” by turning off its identification systems. Operators can then zoom in on the vessel and request further information to find out what is going on. Satellites armed with synthetic-aperture radar can detect a vessel’s position regardless of weather conditions. This means that even if a ship has gone dark, its fishing pattern can be logged. Zigzagging, for example, suggests it is long-lining for tuna. When the weather is set fair, this radar information can be supplemented by high-resolution satellite photographs. Such images mean, for instance, that what purports to be a merchant ship can be fingered as a transshipment vessel by watching fishing boats transfer their illicit catch to it.

As powerful as the watch room is, though, its success will depend on governments, fishing authorities and industry adopting the technology and working together, says Commander Tony Long, a 27-year veteran of the Royal Navy who is the director of Pew’s illegal-fishing project. Those authorities need to make sure AIS and VMS systems are not just fitted, but are used correctly and not tampered with. This should get easier as the cost of the technology falls.

Enforcing the use of an identification number that stays with a ship throughout its life, even if it changes hands or country of registration, is also necessary. An exemption for fishing boats ended in 2013, but the numbering is still not universally applied. Signatories to a treaty agreed in 2009, to make ports exert stricter controls on foreign-flagged fishing vessels, also need to act. Fishermen seek out ports with lax regulations to land illegal catches….

The watch room will also allow the effective monitoring of marine reserves around small island states that do not have the resources to do it for themselves. The first test of this approach could be to regulate a reserve of 836,000 square kilometres around the Pitcairn Islands group, a British territory in the middle of the South Pacific with only a few dozen inhabitants.

The watch-room system is, moreover, capable of enlargement as new information sources are developed. One such may be nanosats. These are satellites, a few centimetres across, that can be launched in swarms to increase the number of electronic eyes in the sky while simultaneously reducing costs. Closer to the surface, unmanned drones can do the same.

Combating illegal fishing: Dragnet, Economist, Jan 24, 2015, at 70

Governing the Oceans: a Dysfunctional Family

manganese nodules in seabed. Image from wikipedia

About 3 billion people live within 100 miles (160km) of the sea, a number that could double in the next decade as humans flock to coastal cities like gulls. The oceans produce $3 trillion of goods and services each year and untold value for the Earth’s ecology. Life could not exist without these vast water reserves—and, if anything, they are becoming even more important to humans than before.

Mining is about to begin under the seabed in the high seas—the regions outside the exclusive economic zones administered by coastal and island nations, which stretch 200 nautical miles (370km) offshore. Nineteen exploratory licences have been issued. New summer shipping lanes are opening across the Arctic Ocean. The genetic resources of marine life promise a pharmaceutical bonanza: the number of patents has been rising at 12% a year. One study found that genetic material from the seas is a hundred times more likely to have anti-cancer properties than that from terrestrial life.

But these developments are minor compared with vaster forces reshaping the Earth, both on land and at sea. It has long been clear that people are damaging the oceans—witness the melting of the Arctic ice in summer, the spread of oxygen-starved dead zones and the death of coral reefs. Now, the consequences of that damage are starting to be felt onshore…

More serious is the global mismanagement of fish stocks. About 3 billion people get a fifth of their protein from fish, making it a more important protein source than beef. But a vicious cycle has developed as fish stocks decline and fishermen race to grab what they can of the remainder. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a third of fish stocks in the oceans are over-exploited; some estimates say the proportion is more than half. One study suggested that stocks of big predatory species—such as tuna, swordfish and marlin—may have fallen by as much as 90% since the 1950s. People could be eating much better, were fishing stocks properly managed.

The forests are often called the lungs of the Earth, but the description better fits the oceans. They produce half the world’s supply of oxygen, mostly through photosynthesis by aquatic algae and other organisms. But according to a forthcoming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC; the group of scientists who advise governments on global warming), concentrations of chlorophyll (which helps makes oxygen) have fallen by 9-12% in 1998-2010 in the North Pacific, Indian and North Atlantic Oceans.

Climate change may be the reason. At the moment, the oceans are moderating the impact of global warming—though that may not last.,,Changes in the oceans, therefore, may mean less oxygen will be produced. This cannot be good news, though scientists are still debating the likely consequences. The world is not about to suffocate. But the result could be lower oxygen concentrations in the oceans and changes to the climate because the counterpart of less oxygen is more carbon—adding to the build-up of greenhouse gases. In short, the decades of damage wreaked on the oceans are now damaging the terrestrial environment.

Three-quarters of the fish stocks in European waters are over-exploited and some are close to collapse… Farmers dump excess fertiliser into rivers, which finds its way to the sea; there cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) feed on the nutrients, proliferate madly and reduce oxygen levels, asphyxiating all sea creatures. In 2008, there were over 400 “dead zones” in the oceans. Polluters pump out carbon dioxide, which dissolves in seawater, producing carbonic acid. That in turn has increased ocean acidity by over a quarter since the start of the Industrial Revolution. In 2012, scientists found pteropods (a kind of sea snail) in the Southern Ocean with partially dissolved shells…

The high seas are not ungoverned. Almost every country has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which, in the words of Tommy Koh, president of UNCLOS in the 1980s, is “a constitution for the oceans”. It sets rules for everything from military activities and territorial disputes (like those in the South China Sea) to shipping, deep-sea mining and fishing. Although it came into force only in 1994, it embodies centuries-old customary laws, including the freedom of the seas, which says the high seas are open to all. UNCLOS took decades to negotiate and is sacrosanct. Even America, which refuses to sign it, abides by its provisions.

But UNCLOS has significant faults. It is weak on conservation and the environment, since most of it was negotiated in the 1970s when these topics were barely considered. It has no powers to enforce or punish. America’s refusal to sign makes the problem worse: although it behaves in accordance with UNCLOS, it is reluctant to push others to do likewise.

Specialised bodies have been set up to oversee a few parts of the treaty, such as the International Seabed Authority, which regulates mining beneath the high seas. But for the most part UNCLOS relies on member countries and existing organisations for monitoring and enforcement. The result is a baffling tangle of overlapping authorities that is described by the Global Ocean Commission, a new high-level lobby group, as a “co-ordinated catastrophe”.

Individually, some of the institutions work well enough. The International Maritime Organisation, which regulates global shipping, keeps a register of merchant and passenger vessels, which must carry identification numbers. The result is a reasonably law-abiding global industry. It is also responsible for one of the rare success stories of recent decades, the standards applying to routine and accidental discharges of pollution from ships. But even it is flawed. The Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, a German think-tank, rates it as the least transparent international organisation. And it is dominated by insiders: contributions, and therefore influence, are weighted by tonnage.

Other institutions look good on paper but are untested. This is the case with the seabed authority, which has drawn up a global regime for deep-sea mining that is more up-to-date than most national mining codes… The problem here is political rather than regulatory: how should mining revenues be distributed? Deep-sea minerals are supposed to be “the common heritage of mankind”. Does that mean everyone is entitled to a part? And how to share it out?

The biggest failure, though, is in the regulation of fishing. Overfishing does more damage to the oceans than all other human activities there put together. In theory, high-seas fishing is overseen by an array of regional bodies. Some cover individual species, such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT, also known as the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna). Others cover fishing in a particular area, such as the north-east Atlantic or the South Pacific Oceans. They decide what sort of fishing gear may be used, set limits on the quantity of fish that can be caught and how many ships are allowed in an area, and so on.

Here, too, there have been successes. Stocks of north-east Arctic cod are now the highest of any cod species and the highest they have been since 1945—even though the permitted catch is also at record levels. This proves it is possible to have healthy stocks and a healthy fishing industry. But it is a bilateral, not an international, achievement: only Norway and Russia capture these fish and they jointly follow scientists’ advice about how much to take.  There has also been some progress in controlling the sort of fishing gear that does the most damage. In 1991 the UN banned drift nets longer than 2.5km (these are nets that hang down from the surface; some were 50km long). A series of national and regional restrictions in the 2000s placed limits on “bottom trawling” (hoovering up everything on the seabed)—which most people at the time thought unachievable.

But the overall record is disastrous. Two-thirds of fish stocks on the high seas are over-exploited—twice as much as in parts of oceans under national jurisdiction. Illegal and unreported fishing is worth $10 billion-24 billion a year—about a quarter of the total catch. According to the World Bank, the mismanagement of fisheries costs $50 billion or more a year, meaning that the fishing industry would reap at least that much in efficiency gains if it were properly managed.

Most regional fishery bodies have too little money to combat illegal fishermen. They do not know how many vessels are in their waters because there is no global register of fishing boats. Their rules only bind their members; outsiders can break them with impunity. An expert review of ICCAT, the tuna commission, ordered by the organisation itself concluded that it was “an international disgrace”. A survey by the FAO found that over half the countries reporting on surveillance and enforcement on the high seas said they could not control vessels sailing under their flags. Even if they wanted to, then, it is not clear that regional fishery bodies or individual countries could make much difference.

But it is far from clear that many really want to. Almost all are dominated by fishing interests. The exceptions are the organisation for Antarctica, where scientific researchers are influential, and the International Whaling Commission, which admitted environmentalists early on. Not by coincidence, these are the two that have taken conservation most seriously.

Countries could do more to stop vessels suspected of illegal fishing from docking in their harbours—but they don’t. The FAO’s attempt to set up a voluntary register of high-seas fishing boats has been becalmed for years. The UN has a fish-stocks agreement that imposes stricter demands than regional fishery bodies. It requires signatories to impose tough sanctions on ships that break the rules. But only 80 countries have ratified it, compared with the 165 parties to UNCLOS. One study found that 28 nations, which together account for 40% of the world’s catch, are failing to meet most of the requirements of an FAO code of conduct which they have signed up to.

It is not merely that particular institutions are weak. The system itself is dysfunctional. There are organisations for fishing, mining and shipping, but none for the oceans as a whole. Regional seas organisations, whose main responsibility is to cut pollution, generally do not cover the same areas as regional fishery bodies, and the two rarely work well together. (In the north-east Atlantic, the one case where the boundaries coincide, they have done a lot.) Dozens of organisations play some role in the oceans (including 16 in the UN alone) but the outfit that is supposed to co-ordinate them, called UN-Oceans, is an ad-hoc body without oversight authority. There are no proper arrangements for monitoring, assessing or reporting on how the various organisations are doing—and no one to tell them if they are failing.

Governing the high seas: In deep water, Economist, Feb. 22, 2014, at 51

Rights-Based Fisheries as an Answer to Unregulated Fishing

New research from Chris Costello and Steve Gaines of the University of California, Santa Barbara (under peer review for the journal Science) reckons that those unassessed fisheries are gravely depleted, with on average about half the fishy biomass they need to maintain their maximum annual yield (the usual definition of sustainability). Another analysis, using the same method, of around 1,500 fisheries last year reached similar results. Both suggest the least-known fisheries are the most damaged.  This conflicts with the sunnier analysis of industrial fishing fleets, based largely on expensive studies of a few hundred fisheries, mostly in European and American waters. These are depleted but generally recovering, thanks to recent reforms.

That these turn out to be exceptional cases is unsurprising. The rapacious habits of fishermen and perverse effects of the subsidies some extract from governments are well known. Sometimes overfishing stems from ignorance and sometimes from short-termism, exacerbated by the belief that whatever they don’t take, others will. The cost is enormous. Besides harbouring millions of species, fisheries provide the primary source of protein for a billion people and livelihoods for hundreds of millions, most of them poor. The World Bank reckons that benefits (such as income and food) lost by overfishing between 1974 and 2008 amount to $2.2 trillion.

More happily, the new assessment reckons that only 2% of fisheries have so far collapsed—defined as a fall to less than a tenth of the historical biomass. Previous estimates were higher, at up to 30%. Yet incidences of collapse are rising, the researchers stress; and once collapsed, fisheries do not necessarily recover. Shoals of northern cod have not yet returned to the Grand Banks fishery off Newfoundland, which collapsed in 1992……

Above all, fishermen need better incentives to manage stocks properly. This has been tried in several ways. In Iceland and elsewhere they have a tradable share of a scientifically determined quota. Or they can be given long-term rights—akin to property rights—over an expanse of sea….

According to a 2008 study by Messrs Costello, Gaines and others, this approach works: fisheries where such rights are in force are only half as likely to collapse as the average fishery. Yet the spread of such schemes has been woefully slow; only a few hundred mainly rich-world fisheries have adopted them so far. Though sensible in theory, rights-based schemes are hard to get right in practice. Getting locals on board can be difficult and is a slow process at best. If the target species is especially valuable or slow-growing, overfishing (at least in narrow economic terms) is rational. That may make monitoring and enforcement impractically costly.

Rights-based fisheries are not the only answer to overfishing. In particular, a lot more of the sea needs protecting from any fishing at all. Yet there are few better ways to make fishermen control themselves.

Fisheries: Lost property, Economist, Feb. 25, 2012, at 71