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Friday, 14 December, 2001, 12:49 GMT
Russian mafia 'poaches Bering fish'
Crabs and roe on ice   Caroline Raymakers/Traffic
The riches of the Bering Sea: Kamchatka crabs and salmon roe
Image by Caroline Raymakers/Traffic

Alex Kirby

Conservationists say illegal fishing is devastating the Bering Sea, which provides Russia and the US with more than half their fish.

They say the fishery is nearing collapse, with several species threatened.

Much of the illegal activity is said to be controlled by the Russian mafia, in a trade worth billions of dollars. Demand from Europe and East Asia for Bering fish is also increasing.

The claims come in a report, Trawling In The Mist: Industrial Fisheries In The Russian Part Of The Bering Sea.

It is published by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network of WWF and the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

Dwindling stocks

Its findings are based on interviews with fisheries inspectors and scientists, and an examination of customs data, trade statistics and population assessments.

The report's author, Alexey Vaisman, works for Traffic in Moscow. He said: "Inappropriate legislation, weaknesses in the enforcement system and widespread organised crime in Russia all contribute to the current situation."

Ship in fog   Alexey Vaisman/Traffic
Fishing on a foggy day
Image by Alexey Vaisman/Traffic

With one species, the Alaska pollack, both the number of fish and the catches landed have been declining since 1982, yet the official annual quota has risen steadily since 1996. The amount caught is estimated at 150% of the quota.

Mr Vaisman said: "This clearly reflects a significant level of poaching, as well as the government's inability to prevent it."

He said the report found evidence of fishing in prohibited areas, use of prohibited gear, and concealed catches.

"The most widespread violations include the distortion of data by fishermen on the volume and size of fish caught and the species composition of the catch", the report says.

Safe havens needed

"For example, Russian vessels recorded exporting seafood from the Kamchatka region worth $113m (78m) to Japan in 1997, while Japan recorded importing seafood from that region worth $442m (305m) the same year."

Net cage over ship's side   Alexey Vaisman/Traffic
Hoisting an inspector aboard
Image by Alexey Vaisman/Traffic

The report says another widespread smuggling method involves unloading catches on to Russian ships bound for ports in Japan, South Korea, China, the US and Canada.

It urges greater US-Russian co-operation on developing a precautionary fishing strategy and creating marine protected areas where fishing could be temporarily banned.

Estimates of the value of trade lost to Russia through illegal exports of fish range between $1-$5bn (6.9m to 3.45bn).

Organised crime is thought to account for as much as $4bn (2.76m) worth of fish every year.

Buying silence

The report says there is increased demand from Japan, China and Korea for fish. The European Union is also trying to encourage imports of Alaska pollack, and two years ago reduced the tariff on it from 15% to 3.5%.

Besides ineffective laws and weaknesses in enforcement, the report says shipowners are alleged to bribe fisheries inspectors with money, alcohol and prostitutes.

The Bering Sea lies between the Russian and Alaskan coasts, the Aleutian Islands, and the Bering Strait.

It covers nearly one million square miles (2.5 million square kilometres) and teems with fish, shellfish, birds, polar bears, whales, walruses, and sea lions.

See also:

29 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
China blamed for over-fishing errors
27 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Human plunder of the seas
05 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Sturgeon slump threat to caviar
07 Jan 99 | Sci/Tech
Bering Sea changes baffle scientists
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