International Herald Tribune
Lessons of the Patagonian toothfish
TUESDAY, MAY 23, 2006
HONG KONG Saving the whale and defending the dolphin have, albeit belatedly, become causes for their fellow mammals. But who will save the humphead wrasse, the orange roughy, the leopard grouper and numerous other species from overfishing by interests with regulators in their pocket or by pirates abetted by complacent governments.

Who will save the subsistence fisheries of the South China Sea and island nations of the Western Pacific from get-rich-quick predators with industrial fishing techniques who rape the seas and move on?

Two recent events focus on an issue which is among the most important and neglected of environmental issues. First, a report last week by the World Wild Life Fund laying bare the failure of regional fisheries management organizations - vehicles for intergovernmental cooperation on deep-sea fishing - to halt the continuing overfishing of large, long-lived migratory fish such as tuna and swordfish. At this rate, it will not be long before tuna is as scarce as North Atlantic cod, the first of the big fisheries to have killed itself through greed.

Second, the publication this month in America of "Hooked," by G. Bruce Knecht, a riveting account of how the rise of the Patagonian toothfish from trash status to gourmet cult fish renamed Chilean seabass led in just a decade to stocks being depleted everywhere except the remote subantarctic seas, driving the price up and so offering huge rewards to pirates.

It recounts an Australian chase through the southern ice of one notorious pirate, a Spanish- owned, Uruguay-flagged ship. The pirate ship, loaded with a valuable catch, was eventually caught with help from South Africa and Britain. But the pirates were acquitted by an Australian court more concerned with legal nitpicking than the basic facts. It was a parable of the world's difficulty in saving its seas.

The waters of the South China Sea and Southeast Asia offer no equivalent tales of gallant failure to stop piracy. They are not subject to fisheries management, and evidence of any cooperation to limit fishing, develop no-take areas and otherwise provide for sustainability are lacking. Islands, rocks and continental shelves, let alone fish stocks, are contentious anyway. It is very much a free-for-all among competing fleets and Hong Kong and Singapore offer ready outlets for any fish sales - including illegally caught toothfish.

But their warm coral reef fisheries have one thing in common with the icy waters of the south. They yield fish that have a very high value, particularly when delivered live for the dining tables of Hong Kong, Taiwan and, increasingly, mainland China.

The fishing itself is usually small scale, often using cyanide to stun the fish, but the business of collection and distribution is highly organized and hugely profitable. The favored fish are mostly long-lived, so areas quickly become exhausted and the business moves on, often leaving dead the reefs that support the fish, as well as the fish stocks exhausted.

The destruction has been such that output in the Philippines is now in sharp decline. Even in Indonesia, with its thousands of miles of coasts, it appears to have peaked.

Increasing quantities of high-value fish, particularly groupers, are now being farmed. But most farms simply provide for fattening undersized catch. Even those that raise them from spawn are not helping prevent overfishing. These fish are carnivorous and are fed the low- value fish scooped up by the trawlers.

Accurate numbers are scarce but overall catch is falling - at least if one excludes China's catch claims, which few take seriously. The rich estuary and coastal waters of China and Vietnam are all seriously depleted.

What is certain is the average size of fish caught has been falling steadily for years, as the percentage of mature fish diminish. The amount of fishing effort in terms of boats and manpower needed to yield a ton of fish has also risen steeply. This hurts the local, semi-subsistence fishermen, while the highly capitalized but ecologically wasteful big boats are able to take advantage of scale and advances in technology.

Regional governments in Asia as well as elsewhere continue to subsidize this destruction with tax concessions and fail to recognize that their economic zones belong to the nation, not just the fleet owners. As the toothfish chase has shown, fish piracy in the waters even of advanced countries is easy enough, particularly when abetted by the governments of fleet owners. In the waters of small nations, piracy has become the norm.

Alas, until the rich can be persuaded to attach as much emotional importance to the wrasse as to the whale, and poorer ones to take depletion seriously, nothing is likely to change - at least until there are no more fish to fish.