Legal Loopholes Are as Dangerous as Pirates for Many Fisheries

Proposed legislation would crack down on illegal fishing, but lax regulations need fixing too.
(Photo: John Tlumacki/Getty Images)
Oct 26, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Though aquaculture supplies an increasing percentage of the fish we eat—more than 50 percent today—we still rely heavily on the oceans for our seafood. Fish, unfortunately, are in the precarious position of being both a natural resource and largely not under the control of any one country. And the free-for-all desire to “catch while you still can” continues to have devastating effects on global supply.

Illegal or unreported fishing is a lucrative industry, accounting for between 11 and 26 million tons of seafood every year, or roughly 20 percent of the global catch. This puts the fishers who are following the rules in a dire position. If people are illegally pirating fish from the global supply, there’s less left over for everyone else to legitimately catch and sell.

To combat this problem, the U.S. Senate last Wednesday unanimously passed the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Enforcement Act of 2015. If it passes the House and is signed into law, the bill will allow increased enforcement capabilities for cracking down on IUU fishing, including maintaining a database of boats and their owners who aren’t obeying fishing regulations. Stricter management has been put in place on some legal fisheries, but with more than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries “pushed to or beyond their biological limits, according to the World Wildlife Fund, the scale of IUU fishing is a concern. But with demand for fish continuing to grow, it may be that tightening the lax management of legal fisheries is equally important—and perhaps more difficult to achieve.

Since 2006, when the United States implemented catch limits and accountability measures to ensure regulations were followed, the country has been “leading the way” on sustainable fishery management, according to Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign manager at Oceana. But that doesn’t mean everything is perfect. “Fisheries policy in the U.S. is for the most part written by fishermen,” Brogan explained. This leads to a focus on policies that hold business interest over conservation. “Most people are looking at the short term rather than the long term.”

In this context, it makes perfect sense that a law to fight the illegal fishing putting a dent in fishing industry wallets would get unanimous support in the Senate. But throughout the world, policies intended to protect marine life or fish stocks are often riddled with loopholes that give fishers the benefit of the doubt. “People work hard to keep those loopholes in there—sometimes more overtly than others,” Brogan said.

One example of a loophole that’s being abused has had serious consequences for the 8,200 species supported by the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. A conservation agreement created in 1982 stipulated that in the case of “marine living resources,” such as marketable fish, “the term ‘conservation’ includes rational use.” Unfortunately, many countries with larger fishing industries have interpreted “rational use” to mean fishing to their heart’s content. Even worse, countries such as China and the Ukraine have relied on their right to “rational use” to prevent this section of the ocean from becoming a marine protected area.

Not all loopholes are so obviously vague. The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, with exceptions made for killing whales for scientific purposes. Since then, Japan—which did agree to the ban—has regularly been killing whales under the scientific research exemption. When the data was ostensibly done being collected, the mammals were sold at market. In 2014, the U.N.’s International Court of Justice determined that the country was in fact taking part in commercial whaling and that there wasn’t enough scientific rationale to justify the kills. Though Japan did briefly suspend its program, it was restarted within a year.

Luckily, those countries that want to prioritize marine management can still have a large impact. “The United States, with all of the territories out in the Pacific, has a surprisingly large footprint in our exclusive economic zone,” Brogan said. Not only can the U.S. provide a place for fish populations to rebuild after overfishing, it can also use its status as a major trade partner to require other nations to improve the management of their fisheries. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a proposed rule open for comment that would require any fish imported by the U.S. to meet the same marine mammal bycatch standards as are required of domestic fishers.

And where laws don’t have enough effect, technology might. Though there are areas of the ocean considered under protection from fishing, the Wild West nature of the oceans makes it impossible to tell whether or not a boat has violated that particular regulation. Now, satellites can increasingly track whether a boat has strayed into protected waters. Likewise, while fishers are allowed to declare their own catch without oversight (occasionally leading to some massaged numbers), video cameras installed on boats might soon be able to capture just how much fish and bycatch were gathered by a particular fisher.

Some technology currently in the works will even help fishers get higher prices. The government is looking into a tracing system that could reduce fishing fraud and tell customers where their fish actually came from. That background information may be enough to boost the price of fish by about 20 percent, according to Brogan. “If we’re living into tight quotas and fishermen can increase value just by giving extra information, it’s a promising thing for us on the conservation front,” he said.

The fact that fish refuse to acknowledge when they’re crossing from one country’s fishing area into international waters is both a blessing and a curse for the health of the oceans. On the one hand, it means countries really do need international cooperation to keep marine life from depleting or waters from becoming so polluted that natural ecosystems are damaged. But on the other, it means each country has the opportunity to be a steward for the entire world.