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Illegal fishing under the spotlight

The United States and Europe pledged to cooperate in clamping down on illegal fisheries today, as a new report showed just how powerful a force this activity is in devastating fish stocks.

Jane Lubchenco, head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Maria Damanaki, the European Union fisheries commissioner, signed up to strengthen cooperation against illegal fishing “at the technical, operational and political level”.

Lubchenco told reporters in Washington that so-called ‘illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing’ (IUU) is estimated at between 11 and 26 million tons annually, and could be up to 40% of some fish stocks.

While Lubchenco and Damanaki were in DC, consultancy company McKinsey were unveiling their new modelling work on fishery economics. Sheila Bonini, Nakul Saran and Lothar Stein modelled three fisheries for the report: bluefin tuna, Gulf of Mexico red snapper and tropical grouper.

In the case of the tuna, they estimate that continuing with current harvest levels will drive the fishery to collapse sometime between 2012 and 2015 (collapse being a level of under 10% of the biomass that gives the maximum sustainable yield or MSY). If IUU can be completely eliminated then the fishery should recover to the MSY by 2023. Finally, if the fishery were to be completely closed it would recover within 8 years.

A key player in the parlous state of this fish is the issue of fish ranching. Fishing boast using method known as purse seining can take fish alive during the summer months when they are lean. These fish can then be fattened up in ‘ranches’ all year round and sold on, mainly to the Japanese market.

mck tun.bmpAccording to McKinsey, 70 Mediterranean tuna ranches have a capacity of over 60,000 tons. This is despite the fact that the current quota for East Atlantic bluefins is a mere 12,900 tons (which is still higher than official fisheries advisors have recommended — see graph).

Overcapacity in purse seiners and the unmanaged expansion of ranches, notes the report, “is seen by some to function as a laundering mechanism for illegally caught bluefin tuna”.

Bizarrely, Bonini says that that tuna ranching does not even appear to be profitable. Early profits for the original farms have encouraged the growth of an investment bubble even as the fishery itself is on the brink of collapse.

This may actually provide a solution to the tuna problem — if ranching is unprofitable getting ranchers on side to reduce capacity and deal with IUU could be easier.

As the researchers found in looking at the Gulf of Mexico case, the right incentives can convince players to stick to quotas. Although eliminating IUU is a huge task, the alternative is probably not having any Atlantic bluefin at all in the near future.

Graph: McKinsey & Company


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