Tag Archives: fish stocks

Modern Slavery and the Collapse of Fisheries

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing accounts for a staggering 20-50% of the global catch. It is one reason fish stocks are plummeting: just a fifth of commercial species are sustainably fished. Illegal operators rob mostly poor coastal states of over $20bn a year and threaten the livelihoods of millions of small fishermen. A huge amount of illicit fishing happens on licensed boats, too. They might catch more than their quota, or falsely declare their catch as abundant albacore tuna instead of the more valuable bigeye. In port fisheries inspectors are always overstretched. If an operator is caught, for instance, fishing with too fine a net, the fine and confiscation are seen as a cost of doing business. Many pay up and head straight back out to sea.

The damage from illicit fishing goes well beyond fish stocks. Operators committing one kind of crime are likely to be committing others, too—cutting the fins off sharks, or even running guns or drugs. Many are also abusing their crews… A lot of them are in debt bondage…. Unscrupulous captains buy and sell these men and boys like chattel

Too often, the ultimate beneficiaries of this trade are hard to hook because they hide behind brass-plate companies and murky joint ventures. Pursuing them requires the same kind of sleuthing involved in busting criminal syndicates. An initiative led by Norway to go after transnational-fisheries crime is gaining support. Much more cross-border co-operation is needed.

At sea, technology can help. Electronic monitoring promises a technological revolution on board—Australian and American fleets are leading the way. Cameras combined with machine learning can spot suspicious behavior and even identify illicit species being brought on board…. Equally, national regulators should set basic labor standards at sea. If countries fail to follow the rules, coastal states should bar their fishing fleets from their waters. Fish-eating nations should allow imports only from responsible fleets.

Above all, governments should agree at the World Trade Organization to scrap the subsidies that promote overfishing. Of the $35bn a year lavished on the industry, about $22bn helps destroy fish stocks, mainly by making fuel too cheap. Do away with subsidies and forced labor, and half of high-seas fishing would no longer be profitable. Nor would that of China’s environmentally devastating bottom-trawling off the west African coast. 

Excerpt from Monsters of the deep: Illicit fishing devastates the seas and abuses crews, Economist, Oct., 22, 2020

What really happens in the seas? GlobalFishing Watch, Sea Shepherd, Trygg Mat Tracking

Just Forbid It – Fishing: Fishing and Marine Protected Areas

Fish, whether wild caught or farmed, now make up nearly a fifth of the animal protein that human beings eat….In this context, running the world’s fisheries efficiently might seem a sensible idea. In practice, that rarely happens. Even well-governed coastal countries often pander to their fishing lobbies by setting quotas which give little respite to battered piscine populations. Those with weak or corrupt governments may not even bother with this. Deals abound that permit outsiders legal but often badly monitored access to such countries’ waters. And many rogue vessels simply enter other people’s fishing grounds and steal their contents.

There may be a way to improve the supply side: increase the area where fishing is forbidden altogether.  This paradoxical approach, which involves the creation of so-called marine protected areas (MPAs), has already been demonstrated on several occasions to work locally. A new study “A global network of marine protected areas for food “in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…explores the idea of extending MPAs elsewhere. If the right extensions are picked designating a mere 5% more of the world’s oceans as MPAs—which would triple the area protected—could increase the future global catch of the 811 species they looked at by more than 20%. That corresponds to an extra 10m tonnes of food a year.

The idea that restricting fishing would permit more fish to be caught may seem counterintuitive, but the logic is simple. Fish in MPAs can grow larger than those at constant risk of being pulled from the ocean. Larger fish produce more eggs. More eggs mean more fry. Many of these youngsters then grow up and move out of the safe zone, thus becoming available to catch in adjoining areas where fishing is permitted…

MPAs are especially beneficial for the worst-managed areas, most of which are tropical—and in particular for overfished species…They also have the virtue of simplicity. The setting of quotas is open to pressure to overestimate of how many fish can safely be caught…This is difficult enough for countries with well-developed fisheries-research establishments. For those without such it is little more than guesswork…Setting the rules for an MPA is, by contrast, easy. You stick up a metaphorical sign that says, “No fishing”. Knowing who is breaking the rules is easy, too. If your gear is in the water, you are fishing illegally.

Excerpt from Fishing: Stopping some fishing would increase overall catches. Economist, Oct. 31, 2020

What Shrimp and Beef Have in Common? carbon footprint

Shrimp farms tend to occupy coastal land that used to be covered in mangroves. Draining mangrove swamps to make way for aquaculture is even more harmful to the atmosphere than felling rainforest to provide pasture for cattle. A study conducted in 2017 by cifor, a research institute, found that in both these instances, by far the biggest contribution to the carbon footprint of the resulting beef or shrimp came from the clearing of the land. As a result, CIFOR concluded, a kilo of farmed shrimp was responsible for almost four times the greenhouse-gas emissions of a kilo of beef

Eating wild shrimp is not much better: catches are declining around the world as a result of overfishing. Trawlers can pull as much as 20kg of by-catch from the sea for every kilo of shrimp. And reports abound of the appalling treatment of workers on shrimp-fishing vessels, including human-trafficking and child labour. When UN investigators interviewed a sample of Cambodians who had escaped virtual slavery on Thai fishing boats, 59% of them reported seeing fellow crew-members murdered by the captain.


Most of the world’s shrimp and prawns come from Asia. The continent accounts for 85% of the farmed sort and 74% of the wild catch. Global sales were around $45bn in 2018 and are thought to be growing by about 5% a year. But the industry is controversial, not just because of its part in global warming. Razing mangroves also leaves coastal regions vulnerable to flooding. Many shrimp farms are unsanitary; ponds often have to be abandoned after a few years because of problems with disease and pollution.

All this has given one Singaporean company a brain wave. “Farmed shrimps are often bred in overcrowded conditions and literally swimming in sewage water. We want to disrupt that—to empower farmers with technology that is cleaner and more efficient,” says Sandhya Sriram, one of the founders of Shiok Meats. The firm aims to grow artificial shrimp, much as some Western firms are seeking to create beef without cows. The process involves propagating shrimp cells in a nutrient-rich solution. Ms Sriram likens it to a brewery, disdaining the phrase “lab-grown”….The hitch is that producing shrimp in this way currently costs $5,000 a kilo.

Excerpts from How artificial shrimps could change the world, Economist, Feb. 28, 2020

How to Kill One Million Fish: Murray-Darling

But it took a viral video posted on 8 January 2019 to drive home the ecological catastrophe that was unfolding in the Murray-Darling river system in Australia. In the footage, Rob McBride and Dick Arnold, identified as local residents, stand knee-deep among floating fish carcasses in the Darling River, near the town of Menindee. They scoff at authorities’ claims that the fish die-off is a result of the drought. Holding up an enormous, dead Murray cod, a freshwater predator he says is 100 years old, McBride says: “This has nothing to do with drought, this is a manmade disaster.” Arnold, sputtering with rage, adds: “You have to be bloody disgusted with yourselves, you politicians and cotton growers.”

Scientists say McBride probably overestimated the age of the fish. But they agree that the massive die-off was not the result of drought. “It’s about taking too much water upstream [to irrigate farms] so there is not enough for downstream users and the fish,” says Quentin Grafton, an economist specializing in water issues at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. The Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, blamed “policy failure and mismanagement” in a 19 January 2019 report, but called drought a catalyst.

Excessive water use has left river flows too low to flush nutrients from farm runoff through the system, leading to large algal blooms, researchers say. A cold snap then killed the blooms, and bacteria feeding on the dead algae sucked oxygen out of the water,   This wasn’t supposed to happen. In 2012, the national government adopted the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, touted as a “historic” deal to ensure that enough water remained in the rivers to keep the ecosystem healthy even after farmers and households took their share.

In 2008, the federal government created the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to wrestle with the problem. In 2010, a study commissioned by the authority concluded that farmers and consumers would have to cut their use of river water by at least 3000 but preferably by 7600 gigaliters annually to ensure the health of the ecosystem. Farmers, who saw their livelihoods threatened, tossed the report into bonfires.  The final plan, adopted as national law in 2012, called for returning just 2750 gigaliters to the rivers, in part by buying water rights back from users. “It was a political compromise that has never been scientifically reviewed,” Williams says, adding that “climate change was never considered in the plan, which was a dreadful oversight.”..

Grafton says there are also suspicions of widespread water theft; up to 75% of the water taken by irrigators in the northern part of the system is not metered. Farmers are also now recapturing the runoff from irrigated fields that used to flow back into streams, and are increasing their use of ground water, leaving even less water in the system, says Mike Young, an environmental policy specialist at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

In February 2018, such issues prompted a group of 12 academics, including scientists and policy experts, to issue the Murray-Darling Declaration. It called for independent economic and scientific audits of completed and planned water recovery schemes to determine their effects on stream flows. The group, which included Williams and Grafton, also urged the creation of an independent, expert body to provide advice on basin water management. Young, who wasn’t on the declaration, wants to go further and give that body the power to manage the basin’s water, the way central banks manage a country’s money supply, using stream levels to determine weekly irrigation allocations and to set minimum flow levels for every river.

Excerpts from Dennis Normile, Massive fish die-off sparks outcry in Australia, Science, Jan. 22, 2019.

Unwanted Fish: Another Waste

Long before fillets reach your dinner plate, lots of seafood is thrown away. Overboard, actually. As fishing crews sort through their catches, they toss unwanted fish back into the sea—as much as 20% of the global catch. The vast majority die. On 1 January, 2019 the wasteful practice became illegal in waters of the European Union. Scientists believe the policy will lead to more efficient fisheries and eventually boost stocks, while incentivizing more selective fishing gear and strategies. But in the short term it could mean hardship for the industry and perhaps even compromise fisheries data, if hidden cheating becomes widespread.

Few expect all fishing vessels to obey the discard ban. “Put yourself in the boots of a fishermen who can see he will run out of quota for a species. If he does, he would have to tie up for the rest of the year. He might have to sell the boat, or sell the house,” says Barrie Deas, CEO of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations in York, U.K. “What’s he going to do?”  Scofflaws could jeopardize not just fish stocks, but also data about how they are faring. Researchers, who suggest catch levels to regulators, get their discard data largely from independent observers on just a few boats—less than 1% of the EU fleet. Observed boats are now likely to discard much fewer fish than other vessels, leaving an official undercount of the discard rate and a falsely rosy picture of how heavily stocks are fished, says Lisa Borges, a fisheries biologist who runs a consultancy called FishFix in Lisbon. “It could bring about a very big, negative change,” Borges says. “I get very worried about European fisheries management.”

Environmentalists want to toughen up enforcement by installing cameras on ships, the practice in New Zealand and a few other places with discard bans. But Voces de Onaindi says this is impractical on some vessels and raises privacy concerns. Countries where discard bans have succeeded, including Norway and Iceland, have gradually introduced incentives and controls to develop the economic use of unwanted fish and create a culture of regulatory compliance. Those steps, Andersen says, lessen conflict but can take decades to achieve.

Ships banned from throwing unwanted fish overboard
Erik Stokstad

Fishing in the Arctic: Banned

The Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) in Ilulissat, Greenland was adopted on October 3, 2018.  The historic agreement represents a collaborative and precautionary approach by ten countries to the management of high seas fish stocks in the Central Arctic Ocean. The agreement covers approximately 2.8 million square kilometers, an area roughly the size of the Mediterranean Sea.

Ice has traditionally covered the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean year-round. Recently, the melting of Arctic sea ice has left large areas of the high seas uncovered for much of the year. The Agreement bars unregulated fishing in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean for 16 years and establishes a joint program of scientific research and monitoring to gain a better understanding of Arctic Ocean ecosystems. It also authorizes vessels to conduct commercial fishing in the CAO only after international mechanisms are in place to manage any such fishing. This effort marks the first time an international agreement of this magnitude has been proactively reached before any commercial fishing has taken place in a high seas area.

Signatories include the United States, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, the European Union, Iceland, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Kingdom of Norway, the People’s Republic of China, and the Russian Federation.

Excerpt from U.S. Signs Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Commercial Fishing on the High Seas of the Central Arctic Ocean, NOAA Press Release, Oct. 3, 2018

Endangered Fish as Delicacy

The most recent estimate puts the remaining numbers of vaquita, a porpoise found only in the waters of the Sea of Cortés, Mexico, at just 60, down from 100 two years ago…. The vaquita has been a victim of the shrimp and totoaba fisheries, showing up as bycatch in gillnets.

The totoaba is also an endangered species but its swim bladder is a delicacy in China, selling for as much as US $5,000 per kilogram in the U.S. and a great deal more in China. The matter has been taken up by Agriculture Secretary José Calzada Rovirosa with Chinese officials in an effort to stop the illegal consumption of the bladders.  Vaquitas are not only being killed by totoaba fishing. When illegal fishermen are pursued by the Mexican Navy, they often cut their nets and set them adrift, becoming an additional threat to the porpoise.

Removing these “ghost nets” will be one of the steps taken before the implementation of an assisted breeding program, said marine mammal expert Lorenzo Rojas Bracho from the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change.

There are doubts about the feasibility of a breeding program as well as concerns about the risk. “We have no idea whether it is feasible to find, capture and maintain vaquitas in captivity much less whether they will reproduce,” said vaquita expert Barbara Taylor of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Excerpt from Assisted breeding for endangered vaquita?, Mexico News Daily, June 28, 2016

Justice 4 Fish

Hundreds of people have held a rare protest in Vietnam against the unexplained mass death of fish on the country’s central coast. Vast numbers of dead fish have appeared across some 200km (125 miles) of coastline since early April. A government investigation has so far found no links to a steel plant owned by Taiwanese firm Formosa Plastics.But many of the demonstrators in Hanoi blamed the company, and carried placards saying “Formosa Out”. Other signs read “Formosa destroying the environment is a crime” and “Who poisoned the central region’s waters?”

Environment Minister Tran Hong Ha said the die-off was “a very huge and serious environment disaster” and admitted that the government had been slow to react.He said Formosa Plastics had been ordered to dig up an illegal waste pipe at its plant.  Fishermen along the affected coastline are banned from selling their stocks, but seafood industry officials said exports, that bring in $6.6b a year, would not be affected.

Excerpt from Vietnam protest over mystery fish deaths, BBC, May 1, 2016

Resuscitating Collapsed Fisheries: catch shares

For American fish, this is a good time to be alive. On May 14th, 2012 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that a record six federal fisheries returned to health last year. After a decade of similar progress, 86% of America’s roughly 250 federally monitored commercial fish stocks were not subject to overfishing; 79% were considered healthy…

In the late 1980s cod fisheries in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank collapsed. This led to efforts to improve the fishery act, in 1996 and 2006, which forced the eight regional bodies that manage federal fisheries to introduce science-based quotas and ten-year recovery programmes for depleted fisheries. The recent recovery of species, including New England scallops, mid-Atlantic bluefish and summer flounder and Pacific lingcod, is the result. This signals another truth: given a break, the marine environment can often replenish itself spectacularly.

America’s fisheries are probably now managed almost as well as the world’s best, in Norway, Iceland, New Zealand and Australia. Yet there is plenty of room for improvement. State-run fisheries, which tend to be close to shore and dominated by small-scale and inefficient fishermen, are less well funded and well managed and much poorer for it. New England groundfish stocks, including cod, have also not recovered: they account for 13 of the remaining depleted populations. This appears to be partly the result of environmental change, climatic or cyclical.

And the politicians are still interfering. On May 9th the House passed legislation forbidding NOAA from developing an innovative means of apportioning fishing quotas, known as catch shares. These are long-term, aiming to give fishermen a stake in the future of their fisheries; market-based, since they can be traded; and, in practice, good for fish. Sadly, the two Republican congressmen behind the ban consider they have been designed “to destroy every aspect of American freedom under the guise of conservation”.

Fish stocks: Plenty more fish in the sea, Economist, May 26, 2012, at 32