'Free-for-all' decimates fish stocks in the southern Pacific

Posted: 25 January 2012

Asian, European and Latin American fleets have devastated fish stocks in the southern Pacific, once among the world’s richest waters, a new investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has found.

Governments with the power to stop the plunder have stalled for years, and no binding rules are in place. The result: Stocks of jack mackerel are down 90 percent to less than 3 million metric tons in just two decades.

Jack mackerel fishermen in Chile
Jack mackerel fishermen in Chile. Credit: Mort Rosenblum

The oily fish is a staple in Africa, but people elsewhere are unaware that it is in their forkfuls of farmed salmon. Jack mackerel is a vital component of fishmeal for aquaculture.

Today, industrial fleets bound only by voluntary restraints compete in what amounts to a free-for-all in open waters from the west coast of South America across much of the southern Pacific.

Daniel Pauly, oceanographer of University of British Columbia, sees the jack mackerel crisis as an alarming indicator of progressive collapse in all oceans. “This is the last of the buffaloes,” he told ICIJ. “When they’re gone, everything will be gone ... This is the closing of the frontier.”

Delegates from at least 20 countries will gather January 30 in the Chilean capital Santiago at a meeting organised by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization to seek more progress toward the elusive goal of curbing this plunder.

Among the investigation’s findings:

  • As other fisheries are pushed to their limits, giant trawlers have moved southward toward the edge of Antarctica to catch the fish that are left. Many are aided by government subsidies.
  • National interests and geopolitical rivalry have blocked efforts, since 2006, to create and ratify a regional fisheries management organization that can impose binding legal measures to rescue jack mackerel from further collapse.
  • In Chile, a handful of companies controlled largely by wealthy families own rights to 87 percent of the jack mackerel catch; with government backing they have secured unrealistically high quotas –beyond what scientists recommend to save the stock.
  • In Peru, the world’s second largest fishing nation, widespread cheating at fishmeal plants allows companies to overfish and evade taxes. An ICIJ analysis reveals that at least 630,000 tons of anchoveta, – worth nearly $200 million when reduced to fishmeal for aquaculture – “vanished” over two and a half years. 

The Last Fish: Plunder in the South Pacific is the latest installment of Looting the Seas, a multi-year investigation looking at forces that are rapidly emptying oceans of fish. The stories are published in partnership with media around the world, including the International Herald Tribune, Le Monde (France), South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), El Mundo (Spain), Trouw (The Netherlands), and the investigative journalism centers IDL-Reporteros (Peru) and CIPER (Chile). A documentary co-produced with London-based tve is planned to air on BBC World TV News in the spring.