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So long, farewell…

December 20, 2016


To quote the venerable Douglas Adams, “So long, and thanks for all the fish!”

And while I wish that meant my next activity was a moving aquatic dance routine that ended with me flying off into outer space (see video), instead, it means that I have to tell you that I am taking an indefinite and official break from writing content for this blog.

For now, I leave the website up as some of the older posts get a bit of traffic, and well, maybe there’s more than just a little bit of emotional attachment to the digital “real estate.”

But thankfully, this is not the end to my blogging.

This blog and the greater conservation journey it supported over the last six years has brought new opportunities and a new phase in my conservation career in which I focus more on developing solutions than on analyzing the problems.

I now engage in this more applied manner as a PhD student and conservation law enforcement researcher at Michigan State University, and this has really been what’s kept me away from writing so much in the recent past. But now that my coursework is done, and I begin to feel confident with criminological literature and research, it’s time I set out on a slightly different blogging venture.

So what’s next?

Well, I’ll be joining several other early career scientists in developing a blog themed around the science of wildlife law enforcement. It’ll be both a digital home for our research projects and a publishing platform for our experiences, opinions, and anything else we think might benefit conservation.

Want to know more? I’ll have much more to share in early 2017. Feel free to check back here as I’ll update this post once the new website is live.

Update 6/5/2018: As a former professor once magnificently and comedically explained, things can sometimes take a lot longer than expected, and the new website was no exception!  For those who would like to follow my new online writing venture, you can catch me and an amazing team of colleagues at

How Much Illegally-Caught Seafood Do We Eat? A Fact Check of the New York Times

March 21, 2016

Binar 4 - Defending Our Oceans Tour (West Africa: 2006)

How much illegally-caught seafood do Americans eat?  Or how about how much do we eat as a global community? These are interesting questions that I recently revisited after reading the New York Times article, “Palau vs. the Poachers” published on February 21, 2016.

In general, Ian Urbina’s piece is another excellent entry in a series of articles on “The Outlaw Ocean”. But, while reading, I noticed something strange about the statistics used. Specifically, Urbina wrote:

The global black market for seafood is worth more than $20 billion, and one in every five fish on American plates is caught illegally.

While the $20 billion figure is certainly something I’ve seen before (though exact estimates are $10bn to $23.5bn), the amount of illegally-caught seafood on American plates is – to my knowledge – not a figure that has ever been calculated. In fact, the only study in a peer-reviewed journal that has come close to estimating this is Pramod et al. (2014), but they only considered imports of wild-caught seafood, which is certainly not the only source of seafood consumed in the USA.

So what happened and can we come up with a better estimate? I’ll tackle each below and hopefully give better statistics for both global illegal catches and U.S. illegal catch consumption.

So What Happened and How Do We Correct the Statement?

In short, my guess is that Urbina misread the most popular paper estimating global illegal catch estimates by Agnew et al. (2009), which I’ve discussed before. That paper estimated that illegal catches represent between 11 and 26 million tonnes annually. Possibly because they were pointing out the inadequacies of official catch data, this paper never provided a percentage-based estimate for global illegal catches, but one could be easily calculated using any number of available figures.

Does this mean that we could amend Urbina’s statement to talk just about global consumption? Yes, but since we’re putting a statistic in the NYT, we’d probably want to consider four important caveats.

First, you’d want to be clear that the best available data is now over a decade old. The most recent time period of study for the Agnew et al. (2009) paper was 2000-2003. And should we expect for any major changes in these estimates? Absolutely. The paper itself pointed to a declining trend in illegal catches in the underlying case study fisheries, and a great deal has been done to reduce illegal and unreported catches by fleets operating transnationally in recent years.

Second, you’d need to explain that Agnew et al. (2009) estimates of global illegal catches are conceptually conservative. This is because they relied on a narrow definition of “illegal”. The primary focus was on illegal catches that are typically not reported, yet we could imagine that in fact many illegal catches are indeed reported. For instance, what if fishers report their catches, but have produced them in violation of license requirements, gear restrictions, or rules prohibiting fishing in certain areas?  For instance, from my work experiences in Nicaragua, it is likely that there are sizeable catches of Caribbean spiny lobster that are caught by fishers lacking the appropriate license and using illegal trap sizes, and which are then reported to the government and exported to the EU and other markets.

Third, if you use this narrow estimate, you’d want to explain that it is based largely on anecdotal information. That is, if you dig into the data sources of Agnew et al. (2009), you see they did a great job with what they have, but what they have is extremely limited. Most of the underlying studies do not use official crime statistics or surveys of fishers, but instead represent expert opinion. And this shouldn’t be too surprising. While global catch figures are kept by the FAO, there’s no similar clearing house for official fisheries crime data, or really any sort of wildlife crime data for that matter. Furthermore, we are only now starting to get decent global statistics for more serious crimes, like homicides or sexual assaults.

Fourth, and finally, you’d want to be much clearer about how you arrived at your percentage calculation. If you asked me today for a percentage figure of how much fish is caught illegally at the global level, I’d use the same Agnew et al. (2009) figure of 11-26 million tonnes, but a different denominator figure for global catches. Where before I used global FAO catch statistics, today I’d use data from the Sea Around Us Project and make it an average of the most recent period considered in the paper, 2000-2003. That figure comes out to just a little over 119m tonnes for the period. Thus, all together, we can estimate that illegal and unreported catches for the 2000-2003 period represented between 9.2 and 21.8% of global catches.

Thus, you might better say something like:

The global black market for seafood is worth more than $20 billion, and approximately one in every five fish consumed globally is caught illegally.

How Much Illegal Seafood Do Americans Eat?

Alternatively, let’s say we wanted to use the best-available information to calculate a figure for how much illegally-caught seafood is consumed in the USA.

For this basic calculation, you’d want to start with a basic matrix of where our seafood comes from (domestic or imported) and how it is produced (wild-caught or farmed). Unfortunately, the numbers for this aren’t great. For imports, NOAA has estimated that 90% of domestic seafood consumption comes from imports, but given our current traceability requirements, it’s not very easy to say how much of that comes from aquaculture or wild-capture. However, NOAA has stated that approximately half of these imports come from aquaculture, likely in reference to the FAO’s own estimate that approximately half of global consumption is now comes from aquaculture. So, that gives us 45% of domestic consumption from wild-capture, and 45% from aquaculture.

As for domestic production, NOAA statistics don’t really allow us to determine how much of our domestically-sourced seafood comes from aquaculture or wild-capture. BUT, we can make a weak assumption that our domestic consumption patterns are similar to our domestic production patterns. Taking NOAA statistics for 2014, we can then estimate that 9.4% of US seafood consumption comes from domestic wild-capture, and .6% comes from aquaculture.

All this adds up to the following consumption matrix:

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 1.58.29 PM

From here, it’s just a matter of figuring out how much of the estimated 54.4% of US consumption from wild-capture fisheries is illegal, and then accounting for total U.S. consumption.

For imports, the best available estimate comes from Pramod et al. (2014), which estimated illegal and unreported catches in US seafood imports to be between 20% and 32% using a method similar to the Agnew et al. (2009) paper discussed above to estimate illegal and unreported catches for about half of US wild-caught imports. So, it’s not a perfect figure, but it’s probably as good as it gets given the quality and availability of data.

As for illegal fishing in U.S. fisheries, you’ve really got two different studies from which you can draw quantitative estimates.

First, there is a research report (King et al., 2009) that estimated that illegal catches account for 10-20% of total catches in four U.S. fisheries: the Northeast multispecies groundfish fishery, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper individual transferable quota fishery, the Pacific groundfish trawl limited access fishery, and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands pollock fishery. The upside here is the estimates are primarily based on surveys of actual fishers, rather than expert opinion, but the downside is that these fisheries aren’t clearly representative of all U.S. fisheries and the statistic was never published in a peer-reviewed journal. Plus, important enforcement changes have likely reduced overall illegal fishing in these fisheries. For instance, in the case of the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, VMS and ITQ accounting have now been implemented (see Porter et al., 2012).

Second, there is the Agnew et al. (2009) paper that I discussed in the last section, which provides percentage estimates of illegal catches in case study fisheries by region. It’s not ideal, but you could use the highest and lowest estimates for regions overlapping the U.S. EEZ to establish a very rough range of illegal catches in U.S. domestic fisheries as 3-15%. But again, these aren’t just for U.S. fisheries, they pertain to the 2000-2003 period, and there are reasons to believe that illegal catches may have fallen.

So taking all that together, what estimates might we have for how much illegal seafood is consumed annually by Americans? Well, you’ve got two possible answers, respectively, using the data mentioned above.

  • Estimate 1: Between 9.9% and 16.3% of all seafood consumed in the U.S. is caught illegally.
  • Estimate 2: Between 9.3% and 15.8% of all seafood consumed in the U.S. is caught illegally.

Given that the two are relatively similar, we can take the averages of these estimates to amend the NYT statement to alternatively say:

The global black market for seafood is worth more than $20 billion, and approximately one in every ten fish consumed in the U.S. is caught illegally.

What This Doesn’t Tell Us

In sum, I hope this helps shed some light on how we calculate illegal catch figures and more broadly, that this blog goes to show that we need to do a much better job of quantifying the impacts of illegal fishing. Indeed, it can be quite infuriating that we don’t have better numbers, but then, I suppose if we did have better data, illegal fishing probably wouldn’t likely be such a problem. What gets measured, gets managed, right?

But more importantly, I think we also need to consider what these numbers don’t tell us. While these numbers help us understand the impacts of illegal and unreported fishing, they tell us very little about the scale of illegal behavior. That is, is the problem of illegal catches in fisheries due to the massive criminal behavior of a relative few bad actors, or minor non-compliance among mostly law-abiding fishers? And what sort of illegal behaviors are the most damaging to the environment? Illegal overfishing? Illegal gear use? Fishing without legal authorization?

In the long-run, understanding illegal behaviors, not just their impacts, will be vitally important for improving actual management because they will help governments to more strategically prevent illegal behaviors. And given that we need far more restrictive management measures to protect fisheries, as well as most other natural resources, a better understanding of illegal behaviors related to fisheries can’t come quickly enough.

Three Presentations on the Conservation Field

February 1, 2016

Last summer I had the pleasure to co-teach an undergraduate study abroad course on conservation in Madagascar. As part of my teaching, I delivered a few lectures on what I’ve personally come to learn about the conservation field, as well as a guided discussion on causes for optimism and pessimism in conservation. In case you’re interested, these three presentations I embed here.

As ever, these perspectives remain works in progress.



Captains of Spaceship Earth

June 24, 2015

Captains of Spaceship Earth from Leonardo Dalessandri on Vimeo.

It’s amazing to see that it’s been over two months since I last posted. On one hand, that’s a much longer period of time than I like to be silent on my blog. On the other, it’s been a truly engaging time since I last wrote. Indeed, since that time I have finished my first year of PhD work, led an undergraduate study abroad trip to Madagascar, and toured Bosnia and Croatia. I’ve also been doing my best to keep things moving for my summer research, and to see the submission of a revised project proposal to the EWCL Board.

Since I leave this Saturday for two-months research on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast (on the issue of fishers’ internalized “compliance models”), I really don’t expect myself to end the blogging hiatus. This may change as I get enthused about a few other side projects, or find material to share, but in the worst case, you can expect new posts later in the fall.

In the meantime, I highly recommend this video which is performed by Jason Silva, host of National Geographic’s BrainGames and creator of Shots of Awe (worth checking out). Yes, he comes across as though he may be a bit intoxicated, but his enthusiasm and words are quite spot on.  In fact, I’ve often wondered why there isn’t a children’s book called “Space Ship Earth”. It’s a great way to conceive of our roles on the planet.



Illegal Fishing and the Law of the Sea

April 9, 2015


International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), an intergovernmental body with the power to settle disputes related to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea has put forward a very important legal opinion.

The Advisory Opinion was issued on April 2 in regards to a question on how the West African Sub Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC) – comprised of Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone – might respond to illegal fishing vessels.  This is quite important as, by one estimate, illegal fishing accounts for 37% of total catches in West Africa.

While you can read legalese to your heart’s content (see here), this is one of the special times when the importance of the decision can be put in pretty simple terms: Read more…

Intelligence-led Policing in Fisheries (RBC part V)

March 23, 2015
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Use of AFMA domestic compliance intelligence

In the most recent post in this series on Risk-based Compliance (RBC) programs for fisheries, I looked at how such programs set the groundwork for a specific type of “risk treatment”, one which fits the description of what is known in mainstream law enforcement as “problem-oriented policing”. In this post, I conclude the series by considering a final “big idea” for fisheries management. Specifically, I argue that fisheries management agencies should prioritize the collection and management of compliance data. Read more…

Seafood Fraud and Federal Action

March 20, 2015


There’s a nice piece over at The Atlantic on seafood fraud and the recent Presidential initiative to tackle it.  Read more…

Reflections on a Career in Fisheries and Marine Science

March 19, 2015


Brian J. Rothschild has an intriguing article in the ICES Journal of Marine Science in which he reflects on a long and successful career in fisheries and marine research. I think the concluding paragraphs are worth a read by anyone entering into the marine science field, if not academic research more broadly. It speaks to the difficulty of predicting what ideas will “gain currency” and potential flaws in how ideas are spread. Read more…

Corruption in Fisheries Management

March 18, 2015


There’s a great new article out from Aksel Sundrström at Global Environmental Change. It’s particularly interesting as it provides theoretical development to Ostrom’s commonpool resource work (specifically how CPRs can be managed in corrupt environments) and, amazingly, a strong empirical look at fisheries corruption in South Africa. Below are a few choice excerpts. Read more…

Presidential Task Force releases action plan to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud

March 18, 2015

IUU-Fraud Task Force Action Plan-FINAL_Page_01_300

The final action plan from the Presidential Task Force on IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud has now been release. More on that over at NOAA.  You can also find the report here.

All in all, I think it represents a strong step forward for the U.S., especially in the realm of traceability. I would have liked to have seen more specifics on international capacity building, but the process they lay out makes a lot of sense. So time will tell (specifically the next year) if the U.S. might push some of the recommendations my colleagues and I made in the last round of comments.