Giving Teeth to Toothfish Protections: CITES Listing Is a Must

This is the third entry in a series live from CITES CoP 17 in Johannesburg, South Africa

Known as “white gold” among illegal fishermen, Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish can fetch as much as $US 83 million for the catch from a single vessel.  In the face of this lucrative market, toothfish populations have experienced precipitous declines throughout their range.  Some of the only protections against the overharvest of toothfish are provided by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR or Convention).

Here’s the problem:  CCAMLR is legally binding on only a small fraction of the world’s nations.  CCAMLR boasts but 25 Members and 11 Acceding States.  That means that only 36 nations, or approximately 18% of the world’s countries, have agreed to bind themselves to CCAMLR’s conservation measures.

So what?, you might be thinking.  Not every nation targets toothfish.  As long as the fishing nations are bound to the Convention, who cares?  And the really bad guys — pirate ships, like the Thunder — ignore laws entirely.   

The second thought may be right.  Extreme scofflaws are only deterred by stiff enforcement, which is where Sea Shepherd vessels like the Sam Simon and Steve Irwin come into play.  But the first thought — that CCAMLR is good enough as far as the law is concerned — fails to account for the complexities of the problem.

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The Sam Simon hauls in miles of illegal gillnet abandoned by the Thunder.

Unfortunately, CCAMLR does not cover all nations whose vessels ply the Southern Ocean for toothfish.  Over the past decade, a number of nations that are not CCAMLR signatories have reportedly flagged vessels identified as engaging in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in Convention waters.  Moreover, CCAMLR’s reach does not extend to the many nations that import toothfish in international trade.  These nations fuel the  burgeoning demand for toothfish in international trade.

Bottom line:  We have a slew of nations not bound by CCAMLR that either (A) flag vessels that harvest toothfish, or (B) import toothfish.

Enter CITES.  Where CCAMLR suffers from limited membership, CITES boasts a nearly universal membership.  Out of 196 nations, 183 are parties to CITES.

If toothfish were listed under CITES Appendix I, commercial trade between CITES parties (the vast majority of the world) would be banned.  If, more realistically, toothfish were listed under CITES Appendix II, commercial trade could still occur, but non-CCAMLR states involved in fishing would face serious procedural hurdles designed to prevent fishing “detrimental” to the survival of the targeted toothfish species.

Recognizing the benefits of a CITES listing, in 2002, Australia tabled a proposal to list toothfish under Appendix II.  Unfortunately, Australia withdrew this proposal in the face of opposition, and the CITES CoP settled for a “solution” proposed by Chile.  This “solution” requested the CITES parties to adopt and implement the CCAMLR catch document scheme.  Nevertheless, despite the apparent good intentions out of which it emerged, the 2002 compromise has been an absolute disaster.

Now, with this background, we turn to its relevance for the current CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP).  Frustrated by the failure of the 2002 compromise, CCAMLR has submitted a formal plea to the CITES Secretariat to encourage CITES parties involved in the harvest and/or trade of toothfish to adhere to their prior commitments.  In its submission, CCAMLR describes the history of blatant noncompliance with those commitments:

2. In November 2002, the CITES Conference of Parties (CoP12) adopted Resolution 12.4 on ‘Cooperation between CITES and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources Regarding Trade in Toothfish’ and Decisions 12.57 to 12.59 regarding the trade in toothfish.

3. Pursuant to Resolution Conf. 12.4 and Decisions 12.57 and 12.59, Parties to CITES involved in the harvest and/or trade of toothfish are requested to cooperate with CCAMLR’s Catch Documentation Scheme (CDS) for Dissostichus spp. Parties were also requested to report on the implementation of the CDS to the CITES Secretariat and for the information to be communicated to CCAMLR (CCAMLR-XXII, 2003, paragraphs 14.1 and 14.2). This document is submitted in accordance with the abovementioned resolution and decisions.

4. To date, no information has been made available to CCAMLR by the CITES Secretariat pursuant Resolution Conf. 12.4 with regard to the international trade in toothfish.

While supporting CCAMLR’s attempt to rectify this situation, we don’t belive its proposal to the CITES Secretariat goes far enough.  The history described above leads to but one conclusion:  Listing under CITES is absolutely necessary to the long-term survival of toothfish.  The 2002 compromise failed to reign in nations involved in fishing and trading in toothfish.  CITES parties that are not parties to CCAMLR have been given a chance, and they have failed.  For the sake of the toothfish — and for the sake of CITES’ credibility — toothfish species should be proposed for listing at the next CITES CoP.  Sea Shepherd Legal intends to work hard to achieve this goal.

Please support our work at CoP17 with a tax-deductible donation.

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