Friday, August 29, 2008

Why is illegal fishing a big deal?

One of our organization's key issues is protecting Southern Ocean fisheries from illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. It can be difficult to convince people that human access to an important source of food should be limited. Nevertheless, cracking down on IUU fishing isn't about stopping people from eating fish, but about cracking down on environmentally destructive criminal behavior, as recent stories have made clear.

As this story points out, some illegal fishermen engage in environmentally unsound practices, such as bottom trawling and driftnets, that can damage ecosystems and thus the long-term health of fisheries. Skirting regulations involving the size of mesh used for nets, for example, might result in catches of younger specimens, which makes it difficult for the population to continue to reproduce its numbers. While the IUU fishermen can move on to other areas in search of the best fish stocks, small fishermen do not have the technology or the resources to do the same.

When these fishermen don't follow the rules, their actions therefore can have huge impacts on people and ecosystems. In Africa illegal fishermen may have deprived governments there of close to $1 billion in licensing fees. One BBC reporter who visited Sierra Leone heard tales from local fishermen harassed and intimidated by foreign fishing boats who entered zones reserved for local use. These extremely poor Sierra Leonean fishermen also complain that they have difficulty catching their usual amounts of fish because of the huge numbers taken by foreign ships. Eventually, fisheries could be depleted irrevocably, robbing struggling countries of important natural resources and leaving them to deal with environmental damage.

Recently, the NGO Oceana reported on another dimension of the IUU fishing problem - the connection between some IUU fishing boats and drug smuggling. Oceana notes that a man recently arrested for cocaine smuggling owned boats that it had repeatedly accused of IUU fishing. Fish poachers are much more likely to be criminals than to be poor people simply trying to earn a living. Lax enforcement of existing fishing regulations only encourages criminal behavior - of many kinds - at sea.

Unreported catches can additionally complicate the problem of setting sustainable catch limits. Responsible fisheries management requires an accurate idea of the size and age composition of fish populations, which cannot be accomplished if no one knows how many fish are taken. As the Newfoundland cod fishery collapse demonstrates, sometimes even drastic actions by policymakers may come too late to allow fish stocks to recover from unsustainable harvest levels. Good fisheries management practices ensure healthy fish stocks and healthy oceans for years to come and prevent economic and environmental problems.

So what can the average person do to avoid seafood from illegal operations? A good start is the Blue Ocean Institute's Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood, which can point you in the direction of well-managed, sustainable seafood. Oceana has great suggestions about how you can take action to change the policies that encourage or tolerate unsustainable fishing.

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