Oops—Your Tuna Melt May Be Illegal

The Starkist Tuna company might be involved in pirate fishing, according to new report.

illegal fishing tuna starkist

Freshly caught tuna fish are lined up for sale inside Mogadishu's fish market in the Xamar Weyne district of the Somali capital on March 16, 2013. (Photo: Stuart Price/Reuters)

A staff writer for LiveScience, Doug has written for the NYTimes.com. He lives in New York City.

A ship owned by the company that makes Starkist Tuna has been denied entry to several African countries due to allegations of illegal fishing, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The vessel, known as the Premier, was denied entry to the island country of Mauritius on Friday, April 19, said John Briley, a Pew spokesman.

Less than a month earlier, the Premier was denied entry to the Seychelles. At that point it was reported to have 1,100 tons of fish on board, with an estimated value of more than $2.6 million.

The ship is being accused of illegal fishing by the FISH-i: Africa, a group that includes people from five countries in eastern Africa who share information and take measures to prevent illegal fishing, Briley said. The group is supported by Pew and another organization called Stop Illegal Fishing.

The Premier, owned by the South Korean seafood giant Dongwon Industries Co. Ltd., was first reported to be fishing illegally in November 2011, in Liberian waters. It was later caught with forged documents, Briley said. Since then FISH-i: Africa has been monitoring its movements, and noticed that it has been operating in areas where it doesn't have licenses to fish, according to Pew. Trygg Mat Analytical Unit, a Norwegian foundation that promotes sustainable fisheries, has also been involved in tracking the ship.

This is just one incident that unmasks the menace of illegal fishing, which is a major problem around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia, Southeast Africa and West Africa.

It's a problem that, contrary to popular belief, often involves wealthy individuals and multinational companies, and is very difficult to track and prosecute, Briley said.

"It's a major issue," he said. "What doesn't often get communicated is the fact that, and this case highlights it, there are often wealthy people and companies involved. It's these many-hundred feet vessels," he added, not "Somali pirates in rusty motorboats."

One 2009 study published in the journal PLOS ONE estimated that illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing accounts for up to $23.5 billion of seafood annually worldwide, or about 20 percent of the total marine fish caught each year.

A lack of regulation of fishing ships also allows them to be used for other nefarious activities, such as human trafficking, the drug trade, illegal immigration and even modern slavery, Briley said.

Vessels are supposed to have licenses from individual countries to fish within their exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles beyond their coasts, Briley said. Luckily the United States and the European Union have generally strong regulation of their own waters, and illegal fishing is not an enormous problem in these areas. But that's not the case in many developing countries, where multinational fishing vessels can steal fish, a high reward activity that currently comes with a low risk of being caught, Briley said.

Fishing in the high seas beyond these zones is typically regulated by Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, with rules about what to catch and report. But ships can easily get around this by changing the flag that they are flying, to a country that isn't part of these regional organizations.

Re-flagging, as it's called, is completely legal. As is changing the name of the vessel. Both tactics are used by vessels to avoid being tracking by groups like FISH-i:Africa.

"It's really messed up," Briley said.

Unlike automobiles, these large vessels don't have unique identification numbers, something that Pew is trying to make happen, so that illegal fishing can be more easily tracked and hopefully reduced, he said.

Illegal fishing is a problem not only because it constitutes stealing from often poor countries, but because it hurts the health of ocean ecosystems. It often involves environmentally unfriendly fishing methods that can kill bycatch like sharks and sea turtles, hurts the management of fisheries (since the catches aren't reported) and generally threatens the availability of wild-caught fish, a basic source of protein for about three billion people worldwide, Briley said. 

Does this story make you any less likely to purchase Starkist Tuna? Tell us in the comments.

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