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Looting the Seas of the South Pacific

January 31, 2012

I’m very excited to see published the third and final installment in International Consortium of Investigative Journalism’s Looting the Seas series.  This investigative project on illegal fishing has proven not only ground-breaking, but also award-winning.

The first installment, an in-depth report, exposed the massive and still on-going illegal fishing of Atlantic bluefin tuna and documented how control measures are still inadequate.  The second installment (summarized here) was a set of articles that pointed out the Spanish fishing industry for its bad practices as well as a shadowy fishing company that steals fish from international waters.

The third installment consists of three articles and several interactive features, and it looks at how the southern Pacific – specifically its rich stocks of jack mackerel and anchoveta – has been plundered by powerful commercial interests. Even though we don’t know it, we all depend on these fish.  They are typically ‘reduced’ for fishmeal to feed fish farms and livestock, and these declining stocks are or were some of the biggest in the world.  Unfortunately, they are also some of the most poorly managed.

I highly recommend you read the entire series if you want to know how international fisheries really work.  Below I quote some of the aspects I found most interesting.

Jack mackerel’s massive decline:

[S]tocks have dropped from an estimated 30 million metric tons to less than 3 million in two decades.

A decline thanks to a ‘gold rush’:

“It [the south Pacific] was one of the few areas where still you could get free entry,” van Balsfoort said. “It looked as though too many vessels would head south, but there was no choice … if you were too late in your decision to go there, they could have closed the gate.”

Bending the rules in the EU:

[T] the European Union requires ships of member states to accept SPRFMO interim measures as legally binding. And EU countries must divide up a collective annual quota for jack mackerel. But ship owners find ways around the rules.  For instance, Unimed Glory, a subsidiary of the Greek company Laskaridis Shipping, operates three trawlers in the South Pacific. They are owned in Greece, an EU member. But, flagged in the Pacific island of Vanuatu, they operate outside Brussels’ control and can catch more jack mackerel than a share of the EU quota would allow.

The complexity of ownership and responsibility:

PacAndes is the proverbial puzzle within an enigma. Its 50,000 gross ton flagship, the Lafayette, is registered to Investment Company Kredo in Moscow and flies a Russian flag. Kredo — via four other subsidiaries — belongs to China Fishery Group in Singapore, which, in turn, is registered in the Cayman Islands. China Fishery and Pacific Andes Resources Development belong to Pacific Andes International Holdings, based in Hong Kong but under yet another holding company registered in Bermuda. PacAndes, which is publicly traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange, reports more than 100 subsidiaries under its various branches, but a partly impenetrable global network includes many more affiliates. One of its major investors is the U.S.-based Carlyle Group, which purchased $150 million in shares in 2010… Ng [the executive] says the Lafayette flies a Russian flag because it perfected an old Soviet idea: a mother ship that stays put, sucking in fish to process from a fleet of catcher vessels.  Industry experts suspect another reason is the opaque manner in which official Russian business is done.

Widespread fraud:

An analysis of more than 100,000 weighing records from 2009 to the first half of 2011 found that most of Peru’s fishmeal companies systematically cheated on half of the landings— in some cases, underreporting catches by 50 percent. This fraud allows companies to catch more fish than quotas allow, to save on taxes and per-ton levies, and to pay less to fishermen who earn a percentage of the catch. In all, at least 630,000 metric tons of anchoveta — worth nearly $200 million in fishmeal — “vanished” in the weighing process over two and a half years.

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