In partnership with UNEP

WWF: Illegal Fishing Strips Oceans of Cod and Pollock

21 April 2008 | Luca Del Buono |

Illegal fishing for Atlantic cod and Alaska pollock in the Arctic threatens the health of these fisheries and their resilience to climate change, but it is so profitable that it is pervasive across the region, according to a new report by the global conservation organization WWF.

According to Norwegian government figures, more than 100,000 metric tonnes of illegal cod, valued at €225 million ($US350 million), was caught in the Barents Sea in 2005.

"Illegal fishing in the Arctic is a serious transnational crime crossing European, African, Asian and American borders," said Dr. Neil Hamilton, director of WWF International's Arctic Programme. "Cheats are putting short-term profits ahead of the long-term survival of Arctic fisheries."

About 70 percent of the world's white fish supply comes from the Arctic, with the world's last large cod stock found in the Barents Sea, WWF says. The Russian Alaska pollock and Barents Sea cod catches analyzed in the report together account for about a quarter of the world's white fish supply. Efforts by industry, governments and nongovernmental organizations has resulted in a 50 percent cut in illegal landings, WWF says, while warning that illegal fishing for Alaska pollock in the Russian Far East remains a problem.

The new report, "Illegal Fishing in Arctic Waters," shows that in the Sea of Okhotsk alone, illegal landings of Alaska pollock can reach a value of more than €45 million ($US70 million) annually.

The economic loss to the legitimate fishing industry and public purse is estimated at €210 million ($US327 million).

Barents Sea cod is taken mainly by Norwegian, Russian and European Union fishers, while the bulk of the Alaska pollock catch, fished mainly in the Western Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk, is taken by Russian fleets with China the largest buyer.

With markets spread across the globe, the distribution of black market cod and pollock is an international problem.

"If you're enjoying bacalhau in Brazil, fish and chips in the UK, or frozen fillets in Germany you could be unwittingly supporting black-market cod," said Maren Esmark, marine director at WWF-Norway.

"Progress in tackling illegal fishing for cod in the Barents Sea should be applauded," said Esmark, "but the positive trend may not continue as illegal products can find new ways to international markets."

WWF is concerned about the ability of Arctic fish to cope with climate change, with illegal fishing being an added stress that can reduce the capacity of fish populations to adapt and survive.

WWF is also alarmed that several EU member states are opposing the current European Commission proposal to address illegal fishing, and the EU risks losing a key opportunity to tackle this problem.

"We urge all EU countries to support the commission's proposal to deal with illegal fishing, and appeal to processors, retailers and consumers to not support criminality in fishing," said Esmark. "Companies should not trade with vessels known to fish illegally, and consumers should demand the seafood they buy comes from a sustainable, legal source."

On March 29, the European Commission reorganized the Directorate-General in charge of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, now known as DG MARE. There will be greater focus on control in international waters in line with the EU's commitment to fight illegal fishing, said Joe Borg, commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries.

Three geographical Directorates within DG MARE will be in charge of:

* Arctic, Atlantic and outermost regions
* Mediterranean and Black Sea
* North Sea, Baltic Sea and landlocked countries

Commission President José Manuel Barroso commented, "The new set-up in DG MARE highlights the Commission's determination to conduct an integrated and tailor-made maritime policy. It will allow the Commission to address in a consistent way all the issues pertaining to each of Europe's main maritime regions and to the seas in general."

Source: Environmental News Network

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