Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Bycatch in Global Fisheries

Bycatch is one of the most insidious problems facing marine wildlife.  By its very nature, bycatch tends to fly under the radar of the average citizen–even of the average concerned citizen.

Unlike shark finning or fishing for threatened or endangered species, the damage caused through bycatch does not visibly register in the ultimate “product.”  When people buy shark fins, they are forced to recognize at some level the grisly process that undergirds the market.  But when people buy shrimp or swordfish, they may never think beyond the animal purchased.

Although global fisheries take an incredible toll on non-target species–millions of birds, marine mammals, sharks, sea turtles, and non-target fish are bycaught every year–this havoc is not obvious to the casual consumer.

For many, it is out of sight and out of mind.

What you don't see at the supermarket. Photo credit: AP/Wide World Photos.

What you don’t see at the supermarket. Photo credit: AP/Wide World Photos.

In comments submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service, we encouraged the federal government to strengthen a proposed rule that would limit imports from foreign fisheries operating with high levels of marine-mammal bycatch.  While we will dedicate a future post to the details of the proposed rule and our response, it is first necessary to get a sense of the gravity of the bycatch problem.

The statistics are nothing less than mind-blowing.  A full accounting is the stuff of books–and even then to be served with a jar of salt given the unknown multiplier associated with IUU fishing–but just a few numbers should suffice to get you hopping mad.

  • 650,000 — The number of marine mammals that are killed or seriously injured every year after being hooked or caught in nets and other fishing gear.
  • 31 billion — The dollar-value of fish products imported to the United States in 2012.
  • 6 — The number of nations that import over $1 billion of fish to the U.S. every year (China, Canada, Chile, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand).
  • 93%, 83%, 82%, 57%, and 100% — The respective percentage of marine mammals known to suffer from bycatch (93% of baleen whales; 83% of phocid seals; 82% of toothed whales, including dolphins; 57% of otariid seals and sea lions; and 100% of sirenians, which include manatees and their relatives).
  • 40+ — The number of years that the import provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act has collected dust for want of effective regulation.  Without a regulation to give teeth to the import provision, the vast majority of foreign-caught fish products have been entering the U.S. market in violation of national law.

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Developing Incentives to Combat IUU Fishing & Fisheries Crime

Global marine ecosystems are collapsing. Of the 600 marine fish stocks monitored by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the vast majority are in bad shape.  Over 75% of these stocks are “fully exploited,” “overexploited,” or “depleted.”  These stats are from the FAO, hardly an alarmist organization.  Many scientists believe the situation is far worse, noting that the FAO methodology overlooks many stocks and fails to account for certain forms of fishing.

In the meantime, fish consumption is four times higher than in 1950, and global fishing fleet capacity has more than doubled since 1970.  The math is simple and terrifying.  It is an equation of destruction.

The most troubling part:  Despite all our laws and international agreements, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing – as well as fisheries crime – continues to occur on a massive scale.  IUU fishing can take many forms:  permitted vessels exceeding their quotas (and criminally covering up the excess); vessels fishing in sanctuaries or during closed seasons; vessels flying flags of convenience (FOCs) to avoid meaningful regulation by the flag state; and, most brazenly, vessels flying no flags at all and plundering the seas at will.

The deplorable practice of IUU fishing is extremely lucrative.  It is also extremely difficult to monitor.

An IUU vessel plies the ocean. Photo credit: NMFS

An IUU vessel plies the ocean. Photo credit: NMFS

IUU fishing is not simply the product of rogue fishermen – it is also facilitated by the action and inaction of flag states and other governmental actors. Marine vessels are regulated primarily by the nation whose flag they bear. Some states demand environmental, labor, and safety compliance  – other states -FOCs- allow almost any vessel to fly their flag for a fee. A significant amount of IUU fishing is performed by ships flying FOCs, as ship owners expect lax inspections and unenforced fishing rules. Resultant economic losses may exceed $23.5 billion annually. There are 34 national registries deemed FOCs, with approximately 10,000 vessels flagged by Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands.  Together, these three nations account for approximately 40% of the world’s fleet in terms of dead-weight tonnage. Lack of enforcement by these and other flag states is extremely problematic.

Although lack of enforcement by flag states absolutely deserves some of the blame–we find that a lack of resources and misaligned incentives are leading causes of the IUU phenomenon.  While poor flag states cannot be faulted for failing to deploy resources that they do not possess, many flag states are wealthy and compound fishery depletion through fleet subsidies.

International law has, unfortunately, played an enabling role in the bloating of fleets.  In 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) formalized the concept of the “Exclusive Economic Zone” (EEZ), granting coastal states sovereign rights over living marine resources within the area stretching 200 nautical miles from the coast.  Ironically, this move to allocate property rights–a classic response to combat the tragedy of the commons–backfired.  The new regime set off a race by wealthier nations to ensure that they had the capacity to harvest all the fish in their respective EEZs.  Subsidies of all types were rolled out to fuel this expansion. As politicians everywhere know, once handed out, subsidies are incredibly difficult to eliminate.  Even today, researchers estimate that the U.S. alone grants over $700 million per year in fishing subsidies.  Now, with crashing fish stocks, we are left with far too many boats chasing far too few fish.  Some of these boats inevitably pivot to IUU fishing.

Coastal states also have failed in their responsibility to protect fisheries. Here too, part of the problem lies with international law.  International law generally assigns coastal states the primary responsibility to manage and conserve fisheries within their EEZs. So far, so good.  Here’s the rub: International law simultaneously incentivizes coastal states to set catch limits at unsustainable levels.  Under UNCLOS and related agreements, coastal states lacking the capacity to harvest their total allowable catch (TAC) are required to allow fishing by vessels from other states (in return for a fee, of course).  Thus, poorer nations desperate for resources have a very strong incentive to set the TAC high and sell the excess rights to foreign fleets.  The dire situation off the coast of West Africa is largely a product of this phenomenon, combined with rampant IUU fishing.  Notably, these states lack even minimal enforcement resources.

To combat IUU fishing and fisheries crime (and pick up the slack for unable or unwilling authorities), citizens have taken to the seas. A prime example is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. In early 2015, Sea Shepherd tracked a toothfish poacher for 110 days, covering 10,000 nautical miles, before the poaching crew apparently scuttled their ship in an attempt to destroy the evidence. Sea Shepherd was able to recover poached fish and other evidence before the vessel sank, leading to historic convictions in São Tomé and Príncipe. This is an outstanding outcome with a disturbing truth: enforcement of rules is so weak that the action of a citizen group has been the only effective check on IUU fishing.

Fisheries crime – as distinguished from simply IUU fishing operations – can also take a harrowing toll on humanity. The human trafficking element of fisheries crime exploits desperate migrants. Lured by false promises, poor migrants become slaves, forced to engage in IUU fishing for years on end. Enslaved children are beaten and shackled; the sick are thrown overboard. Escape is virtually impossible.

Policy and legal reforms are needed to provide constructive incentives to combat IUU fishing and fisheries crime. The legal status quo provides some incentives, but those incentives are stacked against conservation and, without immediate reform, will result in the decimation of a multitude of species and further collapse of marine ecosystems.  To address this, SSL is launching a program to map out the options and propose solutions.  Stay tuned for updates.  We are in this one for the long haul . . . .

To help support our effort to combat IUU fishing and fisheries crime, please consider a tax-deductible donation.