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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Toothfish at risk from illegal catches
Toothfish on slab Caroline Raymakers/TRAFFIC
Antarctica's "white gold": The Patagonian toothfish (Caroline Raymakers)
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Conservationists say illegal fishing is threatening the valuable stocks of Patagonian toothfish in Antarctic waters.

They say illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) catches are running at four times the level scientists had thought.

The total catch of the toothfish, known as the "white gold" of the Southern Ocean, is double the level believed previously.

Steps to protect the toothfish stocks, the conservationists say, are simply not working.

The warning comes in a report prepared by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring programme of IUCN-The World Conservation Union and WWF, the global environment campaign.

The report, Patagonian Toothfish: Are Conservation and Trade Measures Working?, says IUU fishing is "blatantly undermining the effectiveness of conservation and management of the species".

The body responsible for protecting the toothfish is the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

Glenn Sant, director of TRAFFIC Oceania, is the co-author of the report.

He said: "Even a conservative estimate by TRAFFIC puts the IUU catch as accounting for half of the Patagonian toothfish traded last year. That's four times the amount of IUU catch estimated by CCAMLR."

Moving the problem on

Since 1997 the Commission has introduced an automated satellite-linked vessel monitoring system, the blacklisting of vessels known to be engaged in IUU fishing, and a catch documentation scheme to monitor the toothfish trade.

But the report says this increased surveillance "may have relocated rather than eliminated the IUU effort", which increased in 2000.

Toothfish on sale in Japan Fumihito Muto/TRAFFIC
"Black cod" (toothfish) in Japan (Fumihito Muto)
Mr Sant said: "It is clear that measures implemented to date could not stem the tide of IUU fishing last year.

"Already in 2001 it is apparent that the problem continues, given the recent apprehension of a suspected IUU vessel, the South Tomi, after a 6,100 kilometres chase by Australian authorities.

"Much more needs to be done if the threat that IUU fishing poses is to be removed. All countries involved in the trading of Patagonian toothfish need to show more commitment to co-operating with CCAMLR's attempts to eliminate IUU fishing."

The report estimates the total toothfish trade at 59,000 tonnes in 1999/2000, with the IUU share as much as 33,000t.

It says the illegal trade is dominated by Spanish-owned fishing interests through flag-of-convenience states, which take no responsibility for foreign vessels registered in their name.

The toothfish is caught for consumers in Japan, north America and the European Union, which together imported almost 30,000t last year, more than 90% of the estimated global trade.

Culprits identified

It goes by a variety of names - Chilean sea bass in the US and Canada, and mero in Japan. Mauritians know it as butterfish, while Chileans call it bacalao de profundidad.

The report identifies 14 countries which it says have been involved in IUU fishing in recent years.

Toothfish steaks at Brussels exhibition Caroline Raymakers/TRAFFIC
"Sea bass" exhibited in Brussels (Caroline Raymakers)
It says Mauritius was the primary site for landings of IUU-caught toothfish in 1999-2000.

Four hot spots for IUU fishing, it says, are South Africa's Prince Edward islands; Crozet and Kerguelen, two French islands; and Australia's Heard and Macdonald islands.

Glenn Sant said: "There is no room for complacency. No single measure will be successful in addressing IUU fishing.

Survival in question

"Instead, all possible avenues must be explored to urgently bring the fishery under effective management, otherwise strong market demand and high prices will continue to attract illegal fishing operations."

Maija Sirola of TRAFFIC International told BBC News Online: "The report is saying that the very survival of the Patagonian toothfish is now in jeopardy.

"And it's become clear that this irregular and illegal fishing is worsening the plight of the species."

Images courtesy of TRAFFIC

See also:

13 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
High-seas chase nets fish poachers
31 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
Where the albatross wanders
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