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Spanish Fleets are Looting the Seas

October 17, 2011

The ICIJ has another phenomenal installment in their Looting the Seas project, which focuses on illegal fishing.  The first installment detailed the many failings of ICCAT – the regional treaty body for Atlantic tuna – as it has tried to manage the fishing of the now endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna.

The new installment focuses on the Spanish fishing industry, a powerful interest group, and how it wields political power at home, in Brussels, and abroad to legally and illegally deplete fisheries.  How did they conduct the investigation?  Here’s their brief methodology description:

Reporters from Spain, Uruguay, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Belgium, Namibia and the United States dug through thousands of pages of scientific reports, court files, investigation reports and official correspondence. The team analyzed reams of subsidy data, employed DNA testing and conducted more than 200 interviews with politicians, fishermen, lobbyists, inspectors, prosecutors, economists and scientists.

Impressive stuff.

Looking over the installment, I see it covers three stories: EU subsidies to Spanish vessels, Spanish control of Namibian hake, and the defrauding of Spanish consumers with ‘fake Hake’.

On the subsidies piece, it was found that one company – Vidal Armadores – was granted at least €8.2 million since the mid-1990s.  And yet, this company was awash in allegations of illegal fishing and, on occasion, was even handed down penalties.  I’ll point out that international and domestic laws have been such that it is exceptionally difficult to detect and penalize illegal fishing.  Here’s the skinny:

The ICIJ investigation found that Vidal Armadores or its affiliates have been repeatedly pursued by government agencies and international regulators for its role in a decade-old network of vessels that entered the remote and protected waters of the Antarctic and targeted toothfish in violation of an international convention.

Since 1999, international fisheries regulators have linked vessels owned by Vidal Armadores or its affiliates to more than 40 instances of alleged illegal fishing — more formally referred to by international regulators as Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported fishing — ranging from using banned fishing gear to targeting protected kitefish shark.

While most of the allegations have not resulted in penalties beyond the inclusion of the boats on international “black lists” of vessels, countries from Mozambique to the U.S. have fined the company or its affiliates five times totaling more than $5 million. Vidal Armadores or its affiliates have landed in court six times in criminal or administrative cases related to alleged illegal fishing. Vidal Pego pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a U.S. federal court in a 2006 case involving an illegal importation of toothfish by a Vidal Armadores affiliate.

Importantly, evidence of illegal fishing by Vidal Armadores continues to pile.   A great social science question this example raises is this: Is illegal fishing driven more by deviant individual morality, the corporate structure distancing decisions from wrong-doing, or systemic misalignment of economic incentives?

Meanwhile, the Spanish sector as a whole has received more than €5.8 billion since 2000, and this has greatly contributed to the unsustainable fishing of various stocks.   ICIJ put together a really nice interactive on this:

CLICK IMAGE to go to the interactive version.

On the Namibian hake piece, I’m blown away by how blatant the overfishing and Spanish control really is.  The intro to the story says it all:

Spanish companies are catching an estimated seven of 10 Namibian hakes in what has been considered one of the world’s richest fishing grounds. Despite warnings that the stock could drop further from an already alarmingly low level, the government of Namibia this year increased the quotas for hake catches. Meanwhile, some players ignore the rules entirely and don’t even bother to hide it. José Luis Bastos, a Spanish fishing magnate, was blunt: “We are over-catching hake, and I don’t have a problem telling the [fisheries] minister this.”

How on Earth do they get away with it in a country with a per capita income of $7,000?

A very nice video accompanies the piece:

On the ‘fake hake’ piece, ICIJ found that one in 10 hake samples were not really hake, but cheaper species.  And another, similar study found that nearly 40 percent of samples were mislabeled.  A huge number of Spanish consumers are being defrauded.

Here’s my favorite bit:

The most worrisome findings involved entirely different families of fish being sold as hake. Long-bodied Patagonian grenadier from the southern ocean, bulbous-eyed Pacific grenadier found off the coast off of California, and striped catfish pulled from rivers in Vietnam look nothing alike when they’re swimming. Yet as a frozen fillet, most shoppers just see white fish.

But the fish dealers can tell.

“They don’t even look alike,” said Gonzalo González, a fishmonger whose family has been selling fish since the 1920s and is president of Fedepesca. “Some are whiter than others — like detergent commercials say.”

This helped experts at the University of Oviedo conclude that swapping species was “surely deliberate.”

In some cases, these others species give Spanish consumers less nutrious food and a higher risk of eating pollutants.   There are no EU laws requiring DNA testing and most companies do not voluntarily employ it.  An interesting economics question here is: where along the production chain is this mislabeling occurring and where would it be most cost-effective to ‘bottle neck’ the fraud with inspections?

Here’s a great video, getting juicy at 2:27:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rene permalink
    February 11, 2012 2:46 pm

    Spain’s a criminal nation when it comes to fishing. Itis ridiculous that people from Germany and the Netherlands have to pay for the overfishing they do. Spain cannot do anything on its own, they always need money from others even for overfishing. The beggars of europe

  2. Auke permalink
    April 21, 2012 12:26 pm

    The Spanish are paid by THE EU for exhausting healthy stocks ….. but the perception that fuel for vessels is taxed is not correct. NOWHERE in the world is fuel delivered to seagoing commercial and fishing vessels taxed in either way. The same abuse for calculating subsidies is always used by Greenpeace …. just to pump up the figures and make it all look more scandalous.


  1. Looting the Seas of the South Pacific « Breaching the Blue

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