Plunder of the oceans – The rise of pirate fishing, impacts and solutions

June 8, 2011

 By Shyamalie Satkunanadnan

With more than one billion of the world’s population reliant on fish as their main source of protein and up to 90 per cent of fish disappearing in some parts of the oceans, the impact of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing operations – known as ‘pirate fishing’ – has never been greater.

After a screening of documentary Deadly Catch, there was a Q&A session hosted by Channel 4 News science correspondent Tom Clarke.

John Pearce, MRAG senior consultant and expert in fisheries management, said that pirate fishing was a “devastating” problem.  Within the last year there were 189 reports of illegal trawlers, from more than hundred people in more than 23 communities.

The global fishing industry generates between $9-23bn per year and 20% of the catch is done illegally. A recent seizure of fish, caught illegally of a west African coast, in a Spanish port that was worth $6.5m alone.

The problem is surprisingly compounded by the EU providing huge financial incentives for pirate fisherman, added Domitilla Senni, an environment policy advisor. She said:

We looked at the amount of subsidies these fleets received from the EU – enormous amounts of funds like €10m given to a third of vessels to convert their fishing boats. Also €3m was given to those fishing illegally to improve their practices.

Other concerns were also highlighted. Andy Hickman, an oceans campaigner with the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), said that hygiene standards on illegal fishing vessels, which cannot be inspected, are “appalling”.

It was also pointed out that the working conditions on such vessels rendered men as nothing more than indentured slaves paid a dollar a day and do not see land for lengthy periods.

All agreed that the vast majority of illegal fishing activity is rooted in international organised crime and can be linked to elusive multi-national corporations. As long as such outfits believe that the economic benefits outweigh the likelihood of being caught they will continue their illegal activities.

To combat such a widespread problem, a co-ordinated effort from port states is necessary. John Pearce said:

[Pirate] fisherman will always find the weakspot and exploit it. Find the weakest ports to sail to, the weakest markets to get their catch into and the weakest areas which do not enforce rules.

It’s like squeezing a balloon: the problem does not go away, it just goes somewhere else – so everyone must act at the same time.

Other solutions discussed included creating areas of protection at particular breeding sites, excluding industrial fishing vessels from certain areas, and getting local communities involved in fishing management is of paramount importance.

Greater transparency is also needed, with current figures considered to be the tip of the iceberg as unreported illegal fishing is a huge obstacle.

In some cases, however, funds generated from illegal fishing has been put to good use, such as financing legal fishing programmes and combating pirate fishing.