Patagonian Toothfish still on the agenda

Posted: 20 February 2003

Author: Mark Schulman

Appearing on menus the world around as 'Chilean sea bass' or 'Antarctic sea bass', the Patagonian Toothfish is, in fact, unrelated to the sea bass family. But to Japanese and Russian fishermen it is 'white gold'. Virtually unknown until 20 years ago, this deep-sea species remains in danger of being fished to extinction - now that recent efforts to give it protection have been set back. This special report by Mark Schulman brings the story up to date.

Despite failing to receive the international protection many environmentalists had hoped at the last UN meeting on endangered species, efforts to keep the plight of the Patagonian Toothfish on the agenda continue.

The Patagonian toothfish, (Dissostichus eleginoides), is a deep-sea species found throughout large areas of the sub-Antarctic oceans, but primarily in the Southern Ocean and adjacent southern parts of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Appearing on menus as Chilean sea bass (UK and North America), mero (Japan), and bacalao de profundidad (Chile and Spain) - just a few of its market names - it can cost up to $US35 per kilogram, earning it the name "white gold" amongst fishers. Living for up to 50 years and growing up to 2.2 metres long, the species show signs of being overfished in most fishing zones. Its rapid decline is due to a combination of biology, pirates, and lack of trading regulations.

The Australian proposal to list the Toothfish on Appendix II of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was withdrawn at the Conference of the Parties held in Santiago, Chile last November, due to strong pressure from such opposing countries as Norway and Japan.

Rather, a weaker non-binding resolution was passed recognizing that illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing of Toothfish stocks is a serious global problem and that there should be better co-operation between CITES and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in strengthening controls over international trade in Toothfish products.

An Appendix II listing would have required a strictly regulated trade of the species based on quotas and permits to prevent their unsustainable use.

"A CITES listing would have helped stop pirate fishing by cutting off access to markets," said Greenpeace Australia oceans campaigner Quentin Hanich. "We are disappointed at CITES's decision to let the Toothfish flounder."

Pirate ships

For many years now, the Toothfish has become a popular seafood dish in Europe, Japan and the United States and appears on the menus of many upscale restaurants. Because of the high market value of Toothfish and the difficulty in detecting and halting illegal fishing in remote Antarctic waters, illegal harvest remains lucrative and relatively low-risk.

According to Greenpeace, pirate ships from Russia, Uruguay, South Korea and elsewhere have taken more than 20,000 tonnes of Toothfish from the Southern Ocean in the past several years with an estimated retail value of US$350 million.

"Unfortunately, the Australian government was forced to withdraw its proposal," said Nicola Beynon of the Humane Society International (HIS). "But considering the traditional opposition at CITES to marine fish listings, I thought we made good progress for a first nomination of a commercial fish in significant trade."

"We can only hope that international government opinion can be turned around fast in the next two years to accept CITES' role in managing Toothfish trade, and we are relying on Australia to continue to take the lead on this issue," she added.

Catch confiscated

Last year's bid to have the Toothfish attached to a CITES listing came after the crew of two Russian-flagged vessels, the Lena and the Volga, were seized by the Australian Navy for poaching the Patagonian toothfish in the country's remote sub-Antarctic Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) near Heard and McDonald Islands. The World Heritage-listed islands are 4,000 kilometres, or about 6 days by boat, southwest of the Western Australian city of Perth. According to Australian government officials, a total of 200 metric tonnes of Patagonian Toothfish, worth about US$1.3 million, had been confiscated from the two ships.

The Australian government estimates that pirate fishing is worth about US$90 million a year, although many believe it to be much higher.(A single sashimi-grade Patagonian Toothfish, for example, can fetch up to US$1,000.)

And despite last year's setback, Australia continues to view the illegal trade of the deep-sea species as a major threat to the survival of existing stocks and the country's legitimate toothfish industry.

Australian Environment Minister also takes some comfort in putting the Toothfish, and illegal and unreported fishing, on the global agenda. "This will not only protect the Toothfish from becomoing enfdangered, but will also protect endangered migratory bird species that are caught inadverdently as by-catch."

The next CITES meeting to consider the issue is scheduled to take place in Thailand at the end of 2004.

Mark Schulman is a freelance writer based in Israel. He also works for the Earth Negotiations Bulletin.

  • Some good news for the future of the toothfish came with the announcement by the Australian government, in November 2002, of a new 6.5 m. hectare marine reserve in Antactic waters. This new reserve will help to protect part of the habitat for commercial fish species such as the toothfish. The new reserve is the largest area in the world to be protected from commercial harvesting and is almost twice the size of Switzerland and more than twice the size of Belgium.

    In addition, Australian government vessels equipped with deck-mounted machine guns are now patrolling Australia's Southern Ocean Water to deter pirate fishing vessels that seek to harvest the lucrative Patagonian toothfish. Known as Chilean sea bass on North American menus, it is a deep water, slow growing fish that is in demand for high-end restaurants and is now being wiped out by illegal fishing. (Environment News Service, July 8, 2004)

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