The Pirate Fishers

An Informal Alliance of Experts is Taking on the Challenge Of Bringing Law and Order to Fragile, Overfished Banks

Jessica Spiegel | September 2007

A Norwegian trawler docked at a port in Tromsø after being arrested for sailing under flags of convenience in the Atlantic (Photo: Pål Julius Skogholt)

The open seas have long been a lawless place. And although international organisations attempt to regulate the ships and sailors that exploit international waters for commercial gain, their efforts – as in days of old, when pirates ruled the waves – have led to naught.

But recent studies have raised the stakes: New evidence has revealed the severe environmental damange that results from a lack of regulation. In reaction to these studies, an informal alliance of experts is taking on the challenge of bringing law and order to the seas, monitoring the alarming patterns of over-fishing that threaten the ecosystem.

One of these is British scientist Rob Hicks, who has launched a Europe-wide campaign against fishing "pirates," whose irregular practices are threatening endangered species and depleting vital fish stocks.  Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) pirate fishing is a growing problem in some of Europe’s more important fishing regions, often inadequately addressed by local coast guards and other enforcement authorities.

And like their buccaneer ancestors, these pirate fishing boats often sail under stolen flags, with forged identities that make them hard to trace, according to marine biologist Hicks, a major player of the campaign.

"There are hundreds of rogue fishing vessels flying under false flags that enable them to plunder already over-exploited fish stocks with little chance of being caught," Hicks said in a recent interview with The Vienna Review. "Unless it is stopped, other measures to help fish stocks recover have little chance of success."

Sailing under ‘Flags of Convenience,’ the act of owning a ship in one country and sailing under the flag of another, is not a new phenomenon. According to Greenpeace, as many as 1,300 industrial-sized pirate vessels were fishing the seas in 2001, and the number is increasing. European ship owners have become able to purchase a flag from countries such as Panama, Belize and Grenadine for as little as $500 with no questions asked.

Despite rules and regulations governing ports, the pirated catch usually goes unchecked and is mixed with legally caught fish and then sent on to the European market.

Along with the depletion of fish stocks, even greater damage is done to the marine ecosystem, Hicks said. Ocean floors are destroyed by unregulated fishing techniques and other wildlife die along with the fish.  According to Birdlife International, over 100,000 birds are killed each year by pirate fishermen and countless other marine life become entangled in their nets and are thrown back to sea dead or dying.

"This unregulated and unreported fishing is barbaric at best," Hicks claims. While the pirate fishing has no immediate affect on European consumers now, he claims there will be drastic effects in the future.  "Preventing unregulated fishing is critical to maintaining sustainable populations."

Over fishing due to lack of regulation has placed certain fish populations beyond the skills of conservationists.  Shoals of cod in the waters off the coast of Poland, for example, have been reduced to a tenth of what they were 20 years ago. A 2006 report by Greenpeace claims that 30% of all cod fished from the Baltic Sea is stolen, putting the total amount of bootlegged cod sent from this area at 13,530 tons. Approximately one in every three orders of fish and chips in Europe came from a pirate ship.

A senior scientist at the Brighton Sea Life Centre, a major U.K marine museum that receives over seven million visitors a year, Hicks believes that education plays a key role in making change.

"The first step is teaching people to become careful and considered consumers," Hicks said, pointing out that legal catch will carry an authorising stamp from the Marine Stewardship Council or a similar organization, proving that the fish has come under the careful scrutiny of the regulatory bodies.

Besides bringing his fellow citizens to a heightened state of awareness, Hicks hopes to raise half-a-million signatures on a petition that he will submit to the United Nations next year.  While waters that fall under national jurisdiction are carefully watched, the 50% of the world’s surface that falls under the category of ‘international waters’ is virtually lawless. Hicks believes the UN and politicians of the European Union have the power to reverse the damage that has been caused by pirate fishing in recent years.

"Unfortunately, these international waters are difficult to manage and it becomes a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’," Hicks said. However, international organisations, he believes, will be able to instill a sense of self management in fishermen around the world.

Self-management, by fisherman as well as consumers, is the only answer according to this biologist. But he believes optimism is also essential. Though the condition of the planet may be dire, it is not beyond saving. Succumbing to defeat, he says, will only exacerbate the problem.

"The effect humans have had on the planet over the last ten to fifteen years has been drastic," Hicks concluded. "Every day we waste is a day lost."

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