Last chance to save the Patagonian toothfish

Posted: 15 October 2002

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 is now in danger of being fished to extinction - unless it can be protected under international law. This special report is by Mark Schulman.

In an effort to protect the Patagonian toothfish from illegal fishing in Antarctic waters, Australia saught to have it protected under the CITES convention on international trade in endangered species when Parties to the treaty meet in Chile in November 2002. "A bid to have the Toothfish attached to a CITES listing will send a very clear signal that Australia is prepared to go to bat for both the commercial sustainability of our fishery and responsible environmental conduct," Australian Environment Minister, David Kemp, said before the meeting.

In the event, the toothfish was not put on the Appendix II listing at the meeting, but it was agreed, by consensus, that CITES should establish a role in protecting the species. This puts the toothfish firmly on the agenda for futher discussion and for the next Conference of the Parties, probably in 2005. Supporting the move for listing under Appendix II of the convention were several major environmental organizations, including Greenpeace, the Humane Society International, WWF Australia, and Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. "We can only hope that a combination of pressure through concerted international diplomacy, stronger international legal protection and on the ground enforcement will finally bring about the poachers undoing," said Nicola Beynon, a wildlife campaigner with the Australian branch of Humane Society International. Russian ships

A CITES Appendix II listing includes species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but that may become so unless trade is controlled. Species listed under Appendix II must be accompanied by an appropriate CITES export permit issued by the exporting country before entry to the importing country will be allowed. Appendix I, on the other hand, include species threatened with extinction. Trade in these species, such as the African elephant, mountain gorillas, and the Australian dugong are permitted only in exceptional circumstances. The CITES meeting came at a time when the Australian government is trying to prosecute the crew of two Russian-flagged vessels, the Lena and the Volga, that were seized by the Australian Navy earlier this year 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 ships and crew are still in custody pending a court hearing in November. In the meantime, the Supreme Court of Western Australia has recently increased the bail for the Russian captain and three Spanish crew of the Volga from US$37,500 to US$137,500 per person, while the three crew members from the Lena were fined US$50,000. Those in custody will not be permitted to leave Australian jurisdiction until cash deposits for the bail are received. "The court decision has the effect of amplifying the government's serious position on illegal fishing and ensuring that justice proceeds," Australian Fisheries Minister Ian Macdonald said. He added that the initial apprehension of the two Russian flagged vessels was proof of the government's determination to protect Australia's fishing interests and sovereignty and to preserving the stock of valuable species such as the Patagonian toothfish. Big fine

As a result, the Australian government is increasing surveillance and enforcement of the sub-Antarctic waters surrounding Heard Island and McDonald Islands fishery to minimize illegal catches of the valuable toothfish. The fisheries around Heard and McDonald Islands, where the two ships were caught, are worth some US$15 million a year to legal Australian fishing operators, according to the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. However, its remoteness creates logistical problems for Australian protection, which illegal fishing boats often try to exploit. Other territories in the region, such as the French island of Kergeulen, have faced similar incursions by illegal operators. This is not the first time foreign trawlers have been caught fishing illegally in Australian waters. A Togo-registered vessel, the South Tomi, was caught with a US$800,000 haul in March 2001, with its captain ordered to pay US$68,000, the highest fine imposed in Australia for poaching so far. It appears that the seizure of the two Russian-flagged vessels is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Greenpeace Australia, the Lena and the Volga are but two of many pirate fishing vessels poaching the Patagonian toothfish. "We estimate that at least 30 vessels are currently operating in the southern Indian Ocean...but there are obviously more vessels that we don't know about," Greenpeace Oceans campaigner Quentin Hanich said in an interview. "It's great to catch one ship, but what about the ones that get away?" Overseas markets

A report by the wildlife trade monitoring organization, TRAFFIC, cited the total trade in unprocessed toothfish for 1999-2000 was as high as 59,000 tonnes, of which up to 33,000 tonnes were caught by pirate ships like the Lena and the Volga and sold in poorly regulated ports in such countries as Mauritius, Namibia, Uruguay, and increasingly in Indonesia. The catches then make their way to overseas markets, particularly Japan, the United States and Europe, where they are incorrectly, but cleverly, marketed by fish retailers (Chilean sea bass in the US, Australian or Antarctic sea bass in the UK, Mero in Japan, or Légine Austral in France) to unsuspecting customers. Other known importers are Canada, Argentina, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, and China. Meanwhile, Hong Kong and Thailand are emerging as new destinations for the processing and consumption of the toothfish. The Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) is not even related to the sea bass family. Rather, it is a demersal species (found at or near the sea bottom) that lives in water up to 3,500 metres deep, primarily off islands in the southern oceans close to Antarctica. Like other deep-sea fish, very little is known about the toothfish. What is known, however, is that they have a lifespan of up to 50 years, but do not start spawning until they are of 10-12 years of age. They are one of the two largest species of fish occurring in the Antarctic, reaching up to 2.2 meters in length and up to 100 kilograms in weight. Fishing zone

As a result of illegal fishing, particularly the over-fishing of juvenile fish, many scientists believe that the species will be commercially extinct in several years, very much like that of the Marbled rockcod and the Mackerel icefish. After just two years of pirate fishing of Patagonian toothfish around Crozet Island, southeast of South Africa, the fishery has already reached its point of commercial extinction. Both pirate fishers, as well as licensed ones, are also having a major impact on seabird populations, killing hundreds of thousands of petrels and albatrosses, which easily get hooked and drowned as by-catch on long fishing lines. Several species of these seabirds are currently facing extinction (see: ). "The fish stocks are basically just on the way down and that is largely a result of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing," Greenpeace campaigner Hanich underlined. "You will never solve IUU fishing in the Southern Antarctic at sea, it is just too big and too remote," he added. In 1979, the Australian government created a fishing zone to manage and conserve the fisheries and other marine life within 200 nautical miles from its shores. This includes the waters surrounding Australia's offshore territories of Cocos, Christmas, Norfolk, Macquarie, Heard and McDonald Islands. In addition, the 1982 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), was set up by concerned parties; including Australia, to manage the Southern Ocean ecosystem around Antarctica. CCAMLR has made an attempt to try and monitor the toothfish trade under its Catch Documentation Scheme (CDS), but with many of the trading nations involved being non-signatories to the convention, regulation is difficult at best. "All possible avenues must be explored to urgently bring the Patagonian toothfish fishery under effective management, otherwise strong market demand and high prices will continue to attract illegal fishing operations to the long-term detriment of the Patagonian toothfish stocks," Hanich said. According to Humane Society International, a CITES listing is designed to provide additional trade controls to support existing measures under the CCAMLR agreement and to plug current loopholes available for poachers to ply their illegal catch. If the CITES nomination is eventually successful, the 159 countries that are signatories to the Convention would be able to impose strict trade regulation on Toothfish cargoes entering international ports and demand proper certification to ensure that the catch is legal. However, getting a CITES listing requires time and intense political lobbying. There is also staunch opposition, especially from countries like Japan who don't want to see any commercial marine fish listed and jeopardize their profitable industry.

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. With prices like this, it is no wonder why illegal fishers continue to do what they do, even with the risk of getting caught. One can only hope that the apprehension of the two Russian pirate ships, and a possible international trade regulation of the species, will send a strong deterrent message to the future Lenas and Volgas of the world to stop plundering the Southern Ocean's deep-sea treasures.

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