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‘Illegal, unregulated and undeclared’

Atlantic bluefin tuna ensnared in a depth of 25 metres in Favignana, Sicily, weighing 270 kilos. Photo: Danilo Cedrone/UN Food and Agriculture Organisation

Atlantic bluefin tuna ensnared in a depth of 25 metres in Favignana, Sicily, weighing 270 kilos. Photo: Danilo Cedrone/UN Food and Agriculture Organisation

The tuna ranching industry must be clapping its hands for joy following the news by the Scientific Committee of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) of the improvement of the bluefin tuna stock after having monitored this fishery for six years.

The high seas are like the American Wild West; only the bandits are huge fishing vessels
- George Camilleri

The report estimates that the tuna spawning stock is now back to the 300,000-tonne level reached in the 1960s after having been cynically reduced to about 150,000 tonnes by the same industry in the first decade of the 21st century.

It is indeed also good news for environmentalists if they were to accept this at face value, which means that a closer look at the ICCAT report is called for.

The truth is that the scientific community acknowledges that it does not have reliable catch statistics, mainly due to ‘illegal, unregulated and undeclared’, or IUU, fishing activities.

It should be clarified that these predictions are based on just one year’s observations. Furthermore, the statistical parameters used by the ICCAT ensure that predictions are as rosy as possible.

The EU continues to consume more fish than European seas can produce. The EU would run out of fish half way through the year if it were to consume fish only from its own waters.

The solution is simple: fish somewhere else, preferably where it’s cheapest, so you make as much profit as you can. Europeans will start eating somebody else’s fish from July 7. After that, the EU will become dependent on seafood from waters beyond its members’ jurisdiction. In effect, one out of every two fish a European consumes is sourced outside the EU.

The EU is not the only culprit. Unscrupulous Chinese, Russian and Latin American companies, besides European companies using flags of convenience, are operating illegal gear, fishing in sea areas they are not allowed in and are not reporting their catches.

In addition, ships are laundering illegally caught fish by transferring them at sea to legal boats, making it impossible to identify catches.

The situation is particularly serious in African waters where pirate fishing may be now be taking nearly 30 per cent of the catch from local fishermen from some of the poorest countries in the world, like Somalia and Angola, which do not have the resources to police their territorial waters.

Poor countries are helpless in the face of force used against them. There are reports of Angolan fisheries authorities who have had their boats rammed and sunk by illegal trawlers, while other pirates have hurled buckets of boiling water on boarding parties.

At least two inspectors have disappeared, believed murdered, while on observer duty aboard industrial trawlers. The high seas today are like the American Wild West of the 19th century; only the bandits are huge factory fishing vessels and there is no sheriff in town.

Black lists have been created by some regional fisheries management organisations to identify vessels that engage in IUU fishing, but these lists are not shared so vessels simply move to another area of the ocean where there are no rules, change their names and flags and continue fishing.

Apart from the human misery that pirate fishers are causing, the practice undermines conservation measures, resulting in the depletion of fish stocks. Up to 75 per cent of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Much of the seafood we find on our fish stalls is a product of IUU fishing. Fresh tuna caught before May and after mid-June is IUU, baby swordfish is IUU; nobody knows the origin of meagre (gurbell), snapper (paġell or similar), dentex (dentiċi) or grouper (ċerna), which may well be IUU since there is no credible labelling system in place at fishmongers or in restaurants.

The local fishing authorities have a system in place whereby the entire seafood product landed in very few legal ports is inspected for IUU, with penalties for the transgressor. This may sound positive until one realises that the people suffering the most are the small artisanal fishermen who land an infinitesimal proportion of the IUU product consumed locally. This social group should not be subjected to the same weights and measures as the industrial fisherman.

Most fish for sale on fishmonger stalls is unlabelled and hence of unknown origin, and so is the fish served in restaurants. A step in the right direction would be for the competent authorities to introduce product labelling on fishmonger stalls showing country of origin/date of production and to enforce these regulations by frequent inspections.

Another proactive step could be taken in restaurants by introducing a system whereby a mark of quality can be affixed next to menu items denoting the origin and freshness of the seafood being served.

George Camilleri, secretary general of Din l-Art Ħelwa, writes for Fish4Tomorrow, a group that campaigns for sustainable sea-food consumption, composed of Nature Trust, Din l-Art Ħelwa, Sharklab, Greenhouse and Get Up Stand Up.

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