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COMMENTARY:Tougher on Toothfish – Will It Help?

  • November 10th, 2006
  • Posted by 7thmin

toothfish-greenpeace.jpgEuropean countries have been committed to investigate any illegal fishing in ANTARCTICA by their nationals, though the European Commission which announced the move, says its authorised fleet there is now “of reduced size – only a few boats of different nationality.”

Lee Duffield looks at the latest moves to regulate a European “phantom fleet”, its fishing effort classed as “confidential data”, and international efforts to protect the prized species, the patagonian toothfish:

(This report is archived under EUAustralia, Commentary).

It’s a sad thing for the patagonian toothfish that to some its name will sound like some kind of jest.

A sea creature with a toothy grin from a landlocked country? Hilarious.

In truth the imperilled future of this species is a leading focus for international efforts to defend nature and to secure the rule of law in the remorte seas of Antarctica.

The European Commission this week (9.11.06) announced it would give strongest backing to stepped-up controls on the over-exploitation of this fishery.

It was referring to a decision of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCALMR), in Hobart, making it a requirement for its member countries to investigate any of their nationals suspected of illegal fishing.

The CCALMR is the Regional Fisheries Management Organisation responsible for the conservation and responsible harvesting of living marine resources in the waters around Antarctica.

The body has twenty four members, including the European Union, and eight EU states – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

As the EU Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, Joe Borg, pointed out, the new provisions do not stop with the “capture phase” – ships at sea getting fish in the CCALMR’s region, in the South.

It covers the whole chain of fishing activity, including transhipment, transport and marketing.

If all member countries act with the high level of resolve indicated by Europe in this case it could have a strong impact on controlling the trade.

Catching pirates may be more practical when carried out at the wholesaling, processing, and even restaurants stage; better than trying to snare pirate vessels with holds carrying unreported stocks of valuable fish.

The 2003 saga of the Viarsa 1 , chased across the Southern Ocean by Australian patrol craft, with mostly publicity as its eventual outcome, is an example of the problems of police work in remote and hostile environments.

Use of flags of convenience is held to be rife in the Southern ocean fisheries, making it additionally difficult to impose responsibility on national governments; though it has now been ruled there is no excuse for them to permit the practice to go on.

Add to that, in the world of legitimate industry, the ever-present problems of “commercial-in-confidence”.

For example:What is the impact of the European decision on tougher compliance? What is the size of the EU fleet operating in “CCALMR” territory? What is the EU fishing effort there?

A spokesperson for Mr Borg had to tell that “catches and fishing effort of the different fleets in CCAMLR are confidential data, therefore the information which can be provided is very limited.”

Furthermore, “What I can tell you is that the EU fleet operating in these waters is of a reduced size, there are only a few boats of different nationality.

“They operate respecting all CCALMR Conservation Measures, in particular the Catch Documentation Scheme for Dissostichus (toothfish) is the tool to monitor catch and insure they are legally caught.”

Any colloquialism aside, the European component of legal fishing operations in the Southern Ocean will be more than even a few, very large, fishing “boats”.

If this has to be a phantom fleet, it should be thought of as a significant one, if only to justify Mr Borg’s strong assertion that Europe’s participation will make an important difference; that in fact it was the EU which put forward the move for tighter regulation:

“I am delighted that by agreeing to our proposal CCALMR members have demonstrated that regional fisheries management organisations are capable of taking truly effective and compulsory governance measures,” he said.

“This is the first time a Regional Fisheries Management Organisation has adopted such a comprehensive measure that it is binding upon all its Members.”

Aspects of the new measure cited by the Commissioner :

• The scheme commits CCALMR Members to acting against their nationals who are suspected of involvement in Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) activities at any stage of the fisheries supply chain.

• The term ‘national’ includes both natural persons (individuals) and legal persons (companies) subject to the legal jurisdiction of a CCAlMR Member.

• While Flag States remain obliged to act against vessels operating under their flags, the scheme provides all Members with both an international obligation and an effective legal basis for action against their nationals who may be operating under so-called ‘flags of convenience’.

• Members are also obliged to build up a cooperation framework for the exchange of all possible information on persons or companies which are allegedly involved in IUU [illegal] activities so that exhaustive investigations may be conducted.

• CCALMR Members will have to transpose the new scheme into their national legislation by 1 July 2008 at the latest.

The patagonian toothfish is at the centre of fishing, and regulation of fishing in the Antarctic region.

International conservation agencies and organisations have raised the alarm over heavy exploitation of stocks since at least the mid-1990s.

The fish is the famed “white gold” of ocean fisheries; each can grow to over two metres; a single fish has been known to fetch $US1000 (A$1302.51; Decrates); the flesh is very good, known in the trade as “restaurant quality”; it is heavily favoured in the United States and Japan, followed by Canada and the EU.

The total illegal catch, estimated by Greenpeace in 1997, was 100 000 tonnes, valued at the time at A$760-million. Later surveys have put the average market price at $10US (A$13.03) per kilogram.

Research by the IUCN (World Conservation Union and Worldwide Fund for Nature – WWF) produced estimates that just under half the total catch, from the CCALMR control area, and adjacent seas, was illegal. The legal, reported catch from inside the area was 29% of the estimated total, and from outside the area 22%.

It is a vulnerable fishery with many associated environmental hazards.

The fish itself is a slow breerder, reproducing ten years into a fifty-year life-span; IUCN studies, among others, in certain defined territories, have indicated a threat to its regenerative capacity by uncontrolled exploitation.

Fishing is done using lines with thousands of hooks, a danger to seabirds and other wildlife. The fish is believed to be important in the food chain in Antarctica, especially for leopard seals and evidently sperm whales.

Picture: Patagonian toothfish on a line; Greenpeace.


Australian Government Antarctic Division, Toothfish, Dick Williams and Jessica Trebilco; (10.11.06)

Commission welcomes major new instrument to fight illegal fishing in the Antarctic, European Commission, IP/06/1511. Brussels, 9.11.06

European Union; Activities of the European Union – Fisheries and Maritime Affairs; see legal texts and reports,, updated 16.2.04. (10.11.06)

Greenpeace, Australia; Stop Pirate Fishing; (10.11.06)

International Union for the Conservation of Nature – IUCN, (World Conservation Union and Worldwide Fund for Nature – WWF), Illegal Fishing Continues to Threaten Patagonian Toothfish, M. Lack and G. Sant;, updated 31.10.06. (10.11.06)

(This report is archived under EUAustralia, Commentary).