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Hotspot—Southern Ocean

Fishermen haul toothfish onboard the Equatorial Guinea-registered IUU fishing vessel, Kunlun, in Antarctic waters Fishermen haul toothfish onboard the Equatorial Guinea-registered IUU fishing vessel, Kunlun, in Antarctic waters New Zealand Defence Force
21 Mar
Overfishing is a global problem. Klaus Dodds investigates countries who are trying to enforce regulations on behalf of the fishing industry

Fish, glorious fish! According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, the export value of the fish trade was around £85billion in 2012, while something in the order of 10–15 per cent of the world’s population relies on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods. In 2012, over 50 per cent of the world’s seafood trade originated from the global South and consumer demand across the world is expected to grow due to population growth and, in particular, expanding market demand in the global North. The global fisheries economy is geographically extensive with a complex infrastructure ensuring distribution to the global markets.

International bodies monitoring fishing don’t just monitor the legitimate sector of the global fisheries economy. What is termed ‘Illegal’ (without the permission of a relevant authority), ‘Unreported’ (fishing which is not reported to a relevant authority) and ‘Unregulated’ (where there are no regulation measures in place) fishing is also kept under check.

This ‘IUU fishing’ is a major problem for those interested in conservation and regulation of fisheries. The value of IUU fishing is difficult to assess, but some estimates suggest that it might represent 20 per cent of the world’s total legal catch. Without a working knowledge of IUU fishing, it is very difficult to put into place adequate conservation measures, let alone a regulation regime for a species that by its nature is highly mobile and where the fisheries regions in question might be vast.

The Southern Ocean is one such vast space and it attracts its fair share of IUU fishing. Since the early 1980s, parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), with its secretariat in Australia, have been operating a regional fisheries regime, designed to balance exploitation with conservation. It is a difficult and, at times, thankless task as environmental organisations complain there is too much exploitation of fishing stocks – such as the lucrative Patagonian toothfish – while fishing industry representatives and coastal states with vested interests in the fisheries sector are eager to ensure commercial development can continue, albeit with oversight.

In January, the Royal New Zealand Navy arrested three ships, registered in Equatorial Guinea, but believed to be part of a Spanish fishing syndicate. Given permission to board by the flag state, the ships’ captains refused. The three vessels are all thought to be long-standing participants in IUU fishing. The Spanish government was informed but it can be difficult to pursue fishing syndicates, which often have a dispersed commercial footprint. CCAMLR has worked hard to develop ever more sophisticated fisheries management and surveillance policies, alongside working with governments and consumers to raise awareness of IUU fishing and the damage it does. But the challenges are immense – as much legal and political as they are practical and administrative.

IUU fishing is a global problem. For fishing fleets it is an attractive option – avoid taxes and duties on catches and bypass regulatory structures. Illegal fishing is particularly acute in parts of the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, off the coastlines of West Africa, the northwest Pacific and the southwest Atlantic. Weak coastal state authority combined with corruption in the case of West Africa is a pivotal factor as well. Black market economies ensure that high value fish such as toothfish and tuna can always be bought and sold.

Not many coastal states have the capability that New Zealand enjoys, which can mobilise ships and planes to monitor parts of the Southern Ocean closest to their territories. But as the captain of HMNZS Wellington discovered, boarding a vessel suspected of IUU fishing is still a slippery business.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

This story was published in the March 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine, and featured on the Geocast episode Hotspot: Southern Ocean.

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