Shiver Me Tuna: Pirate Fishermen Running Wild on the High Seas

Congress introduces a bill to end pirate fishing, but will it be enough?

Greenpeace activists motor away from a fishing boat linked to so-called pirate fishing. (Photo: Greenpeace)
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Modern-day pirates might not look like Captain Jack Sparrow from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, but they do charter ships across the world’s oceans, stealing and plundering a valuable resource that billions of people depend on for food. 

Bills introduced in House and Senate committees this month aim to eliminate “pirate fishing,” a global scourge that threatens the livelihoods of fishermen and coastal communities around the world.

Also known by its less charismatic name—illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, or IUU—pirate fishing occurs when boats illegally sneak into areas to harvest marine resources that belong to another nation, largely for sale to fish-hungry markets like the U.S., Europe, and Japan.

Attempts to build sustainable fisheries are undermined when unregulated boats scoop up massive quantities of illegally caught fish, leaving behind damage to marine ecosystems in their wake. Pirate fishing accounts for a whopping 20 percent of the world’s seafood catch, and losses due to pirate fishing range from 10 to 23 billion dollars annually.

In practice, the U.S. Pirate Fishing Elimination Act would implement the Port States Measures Agreement, an international treaty aimed at prohibiting vessels that have engaged in illegal fishing from entering ports around the world. Senator Jay Rockefeller and 12 cosponsors introduced the bill in the Senate.

If ratified, the Port States Measures Agreement will make it more difficult for pirate fishers to refuel and resupply at ports—a necessary component of long fishing trips at sea.

“[The Port States Measures Agreement] is basically designed to change the incentives and increase the risk for owners of vessels that have anything to do with IUU fishing, whether it’s transporting the seafood or harvesting it in the first place,” said Dean Swanson, the chief of the international fisheries affairs division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

The legislation would grant the Coast Guard the authority to close U.S. ports to pirate boats, and require that all foreign fishing vessels submit notice prior to their arrival at American ports. It would also enable NOAA to conduct inspections of any boats suspected of engaging in pirate fishing, as well as facilitate the sharing of “blacklists” with other countries to prevent pirate vessels from deceiving multiple nations.

If the legislation passes and the Port States Measures Agreement is ratified, it has the potential to protect American fishermen and the one million jobs generated by the U.S. fishing industry.  

“We’re trying to level the playing field for everyone else who has a stake in legally caught seafood in the United States,” Swanson told TakePart. “Certainly there is no country in the world that has a more sophisticated and largely complied-with set of rules relating to the harvesting of fish. By and large our people are playing by the rules, we want to protect their livelihoods by keeping the illegally caught stuff out of our country, and out of the marketplace.” 

The profound ramifications of illegal fishing on Americans are illustrated by ongoing battle between Alaskan crab fishermen and Russian pirates. 

Alaskan fishermen operate under strict limits set by NOAA that dictate how many crabs they can catch without undermining the ability of the species to flourish and reproduce. But pirate boats from neighboring Russia have been inching into Alaskan waters, netting valuable crabs and undermining the hard work of Alaskan fishermen. 

A report by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute shows that Russian pirates fished up to five times the amount of crabs that the entire Alaskan fleet caught between 2005 and 2011. The sale of illegal Russian-caught crabs on the international market has cost American crabbers an estimated 560 million. 

Are those criminal crabs being sold in the United States?

Matt Tinning, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, believes it is entirely possible. “Ninety-one percent of U.S. seafood is imported, and just two percent of the imports are inspected,” he told TakePart. “Putting those together, we know that not an insignificant amount of IUU fish comes into the U.S. That’s a real concern.” 

The U.S. isn’t the only country losing out.

The problem of pirate fishing is particularly grave off the Western coast of Africa, where millions of people consume fish as a main source of protein. Last year, Al Jazeera reporters captured video footage of two giant South Korean trawlers illegally fishing off the coast of the impoverished West African nation of Sierra Leone, poaching food from a nation where 64 percent of the total animal protein consumed comes from fish.

Ignoring international maritime regulations, the South Korean boats had covered up their ship names and markings, making it difficult to track the vessels’ activity. A report by the Environmental Justice Foundation found that the presence of foreign trawlers off of West Africa is far from unusual.  

Governments around the world currently do little to scrutinize the origin on their seafood. Pirate vessels engaging in sinister activities can hide their country of origin, or fly the flags of countries with lax monitoring. Greenpeace has tracked flags purchased over the internet for as little as $500, from countries like Malta, Panama, Belize, Honduras, and St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

While the Pirate Fishing Elimination Act will not directly end criminal fishing practices in Sierra Leone, it will be another step toward the ratification of the Port States Measures Agreement, which will strengthen cooperation among nations that want to address the issue. “This legislation is about continuing U.S. leadership and moving towards getting the requisite number of parties to ratify the international treaty,” Tinning said. “We have a global food supply chain, so there needs to be both U.S. steps and global steps taken.”

As to whether or not the Pirate Fishing Elimination Act would be signed into law, Tinning said he was hopeful. “U.S. fishermen want to see this legislation passed, they want to see the Port States Measures Agreement come into affect. Senators on both sides of the aisle will be hearing that,” Tinning told TakePart. A similar law was introduced last year, but never came to a vote.

Phil Kline, an oceans campaigner with Greenpeace, believes it would be hypocritical for the U.S. not to pass the legislation because of the influential role the country has played in championing international laws of the sea. “The U.S. has been right in the center of the mix, negotiating the text of the international agreement, but then we haven’t ratified it yet,” he said.

“This legislation should make it easier to have seafood inspections, deny port privileges to boats operating illegally, and maintain black lists to keep track of illegal activity,” Kline told TakePart. “Only time will tell if this will be sufficient to move the ball forward.” 

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