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Looting the Seas

Looting the Seas

by Stephen Lendman

This article follows a previous one on the same topic. It covers work done by the Center for Public Integrity. It involves a multi-part series titled, "Looting the Seas." The initial article discussed the overall problem globally.

On November 7, 2010, Part I covers the "black market in bluefin." It's so highly prized, it's become an endangered species. Worth up to $100,000 each, no wonder overfishing depleted up to 90% of world stocks.

Among other uses, it's a sushi delicacy featured in prominent restaurants from New York to Tokyo. In fact, Japan accounts for about 80% of global bluefin consumption.

Rules restrict catch amounts but no one follows them. Many share blame globally. Fattening tuna in coastal ranches revolutionized the trade. Dragging them live to these operations for fattening precedes shooting them in the head for shipping to Japan and other markets.

To catch offenders, nearly 50 countries (involved in trading Eastern Atlantic bluefin) agreed to create an electronic tracking database to make it harder to smuggle plundered amounts to market. Its value approximates $400 million annually.

With or without rules and electronic checking, governments across the Mediterranean colluded to profiteer. Fattening ranches make bluefin availability year-round. A multi-million dollar enterprise developed with 67 operations across the Mediterranean.

"At the same time, (they became) the epicenter of an off-the-books trade that" decimated world stocks. A flawed system facilitates plundering. Months of work by the International International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). uncovered "rampant (black market) rule-breaking."

From 1998 - 2007, it accounted for one-third of bluefin caught. Cheaters involve fishermen, ranchers, divers, traders, politicians, inspectors and scientists.
Illegal practices include:

• under-reporting catches, amounts towed, caged and sold;

• ranching undersized fish;

• fake releases when caught cheating;

• under-declaring harvests and faking data; and

• illegal cages.

Before ranches, Mediterranean tuna operations lasted three months. Now it's year-round with over-catching. As a result, it's up to the International  Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) to save a dying species. It's an intergovernmental body comprised of dozens of countries with vested interests.

So far, rules set aren't followed. Catches way exceed quotas. Even Japan's worried. Its senior ICCAT delegate Masanori Miyahara warned:

"If no set-up is in place for legally carrying out ranching, then it should be stopped for a while, and it should be cleaned up."

At risk is fishing bluefin to extinction. As a result, the world's largest consumer is worried enough perhaps to act. Japanese demand spawned the burgeoning industry. Large purse seine vessels catch 3,000 tuna at a time. Selling them to ranchers, not final buyers, increases profits.

At sea, vessels transfer catches to cages. Tugboats tow them to coastal ranches. Once in circular pens, they're fattened for months. At harvest, they're shot in the head, hauled aboard vessels, and gutted with their heads cut off.

They're then immersed in a -2 degree Celcius seawater slush. Within hours, most are frozen onboard refrigerated vessels for shipment to destination countries. Remaining quantities are packed, air freighted, and auctioned fresh in Japanese markets.

Overfishing wreaked havoc on ocean supplies. In 2002, the once rich Balearic area off Spain faced collapse. Today, the species faces extinction. Established controls don't work. "Even the Japanese, after helping finance and set up the ranching industry, are having second thoughts."

Moreover, warnings from environmentalists and scientists have impact. Top buyer Mitsubishi promised to support sustainable fishing. Japanese officials began refusing bluefin imports, citing dubious supplier paperwork. At yearend 2009, ICIJ learned Tokyo halted Tunisian imports. Ranches there harvested more than reported catches.

In March 2010, an international effort to halt bluefin trading under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) nearly succeeded. However, Japan now considers supporting a temporary moratorium on ranching operations. Whether policy follows rhetoric isn't sure given its extraordinary growing demand.

For years, Europe and Japan were complicit in looting the seas of bluefin. Doing so created a lucrative black market. In 2006, Japan and Australia uncovered massive illegal catches, including southern bluefin, a sister Atlantic area species.

The findings were so damning they were suppressed for years. Massive quantities were unreported. Many methods were used to launder catches. Finally, Japanese officials noticed. In 2009, matters came to a head.

Millions of dollars of bluefin were rejected. Whether tough policies stay intact isn't known. Mitsubishi controls 40% of the Japanese market so its agenda matters. So far, it hasn't committed either way.

However, bluefin's future depends on how it acts and whether Tokyo's serious about protecting a valued species. If that doesn't pressure policy to trump politics, what will?

Looting the Seas (Parts II and III)

Parts II and III were much more concise than Part I.

Part II discussed taxpayer funded subsidies.

An October 2, 2011 headline highlighted the problem, saying:

"Nearly $9 billion in subsidies (since 2000) fuel Spain's ravenous fleet."

Spain's the industry's biggest player. Billions of taxpayer dollars support its money-losing enterprise. They "account for almost a third of the value of the industry." At the same time, industry players flout rules "while officials overlook fraud and continue to fund offenders," according to work done by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

Other countries share culpability. However, with the EU's largest fleet, Spain matters most. What it does unaccountably, so do others.

For example, Spanish/Namibian fishing magnate Jose Luis Bastos gets enormous political favors. He and other Spanish companies catch "an estimated seven of 10 Namibian hakes in what has been considered one of the world's richest fishing grounds."

Despite warnings that already depleted stocks could drop further, Namibia's government increased hake catch quotas.

It's Spain's most popular fish. The average citizen eats over nine pounds annually in a nation consuming more fish than almost all other European ones. At the same time, people don't always get what they pay for.

According to an ICIJ study, almost of 10% of fish in Spanish markets are mislabeled. In 2010, Spanish and Greek researchers at the University of Oviedo and Aristotle University of Thessalonika discovered high levels of mislabeling hake imports in both countries.

South African species were called European or South American ones. The latter two bring double the market price of South Africa's.

Spain's Europe's most important fishing nation.  Researchers focused on it because regional economies and fish stocks are in shambles.

Part III explained as fisheries push their limits, giant trawlers move south toward Antarctica to catch what's left. In addition, researchers documented how Asian, European and Latin American fleets devastated southern Pacific stocks.

Once one the world's richest waters, they're vastly depleted. As a result, experts say the only solution is banning fishing entirely for five years to provide time for generating new supplies.

In Peruvian and Chilean waters, jack mackerel are severely depleted. What used to take hours to catch now takes days. Chileans call them jurel. Once, plentiful in southern Pacific waters, they going fast toward entirely disappearing based on current trends.

Rich in protein, they're also reduced to feed for aquaculture and pigs when there's not enough for humans. It takes over 11 pounds of jack mackerel to raise two pounds of farmed salmon.

In two decades, stocks dropped from an estimated 30 million metric tons to less than three million. As a result, new fishing grounds are sought. Areas around Antarctica are being exploited to secure what's left.

An ICIJ southern Pacific study showed why jack mackerel depletion foretells fishing stock fates globally. At issue is decades of unchecked plunder, government complicity, and public indifference. University of British Columbia's Daniel Pauly calls mackerel a metaphor for overall decline.

Looting the seas unchecked assures eventual demise of a valued global food source for millions.

It's one of many environmental crimes destroying planet earth for profit unless stopped.

Doing so requires holding corrupt politicians responsible and replacing them with honest ones. Only grassroots activism can achieve it.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at lendmanstephen@sbcglobal.net.

Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.