Fishing Pirates Abound

Fishing Pirates Abound

Sometime shortly after Canada Day this year, as FISHERIES bureaucrats around the world prepared for an autumn summit on protecting global marine stocks, five rusting trawlers known as the "Rostock Girls" slipped into the narrow channel of international water between Greenland and Labrador and set down their lines. How much they caught is a matter of guesswork: no sooner had surveillance aircraft operated by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) spotted them than they took off - presumably to offload their catch on a refrigerated vessel. But you can bet they didn't leave with empty holds. Steinar Matthiasson, an adviser with the Fisheries Ministry of Iceland, says the same boats took as much as 40,000 tonnes of redfish last spring from just outside that country's territorial limits. "And that," he says glumly, "is quite a bit."

FISH pirates, according to the few who have hunted them, are a lot like cockroaches: nothing gets rid of them, and the few you nab merely remind you how vast the problem is. If there is a gold standard of high-seas pillaging, it is the Rostock Girls, a fleet that has plundered the oceans so brazenly and for so long that it's become a floating emblem of global inertia toward illegal fishing. All five were blacklisted last year for fishing the high seas without the licences or quotas required by NAFO and its sister organization, the Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC). Yet the ships swanned through ports in Germany and Poland last winter, refuelling and dry-docking and generally enjoying hospitality from countries who claim to abhor their ilk. By spring, they were back on the open water, and in the brave new world of "co-operative conservation," that's not supposed to happen.

Hopes for a crackdown on the Girls rose in October after inspectors in Kaliningrad, Russia, boarded the boats under the authority of international conventions. But as of last week, the Russian authorities had neither seized the vessels' fishing gear nor filed charges in court. "We're glad they're doing something," says Sari Tolvanen, a Greenpeace activist who has tracked the ships for two years. "But I haven't heard whether the legal case has been prepared, or whether they'll detain the vessels or expel them." The Girls, she notes, have escaped the long arm of the law before. And - let's face it - when you think about environmental protection (or any kind of law enforcement), Russia is not a country that leaps to mind.

Notorious though they may be, the Rostock Girls are merely part of a scourge that experts say is driving world fish stocks toward full-scale collapse. With catch quotas shrinking for nearly every major species, and with diners as hungry as ever for fresh fish, the incentive to trawl under the radar has never been greater, says Daniel Pauly, director of the Fisheries Centre at UBC and a leading expert on worldwide fish trends. Some estimates peg the annual take of illegal fish at US$9 billion worldwide, but the longer term ecological costs are incalculable. A recently published study led by Dalhousie University warned we are on course to literally fish out the seas by 2050, and urged the international community to adopt a stringent CONSERVATION plan. But as Pauly notes, most countries don't even try to calculate the amount of fish stolen from the seas, never mind eliminate pirate fishing. "They pretend to themselves that it doesn't happen," he says.

European Union countries, in particular, have been criticized for routinely allowing ships to land catches that exceed their lawful quotas, and for harbouring unregistered boats. And the Rostock Girls, for one, have gamely exploited this transnational apathy. Named for the German port where they and their crews wintered in 2005, the fleet has protected itself by waging a global shell game of holding companies and operating firms that discourages serious prosecution. Its Russian owners are thought to live in Kaliningrad, says Tolvanen, but corporate searches show that they've registered a holding company, AB Bocyp Fishing, in Cyprus while the vessels themselves fly "flags of convenience" from countries like Belize and Dominica - nations too small or too corrupt to take action against fish pirates.

Their crews and names of the boats also tend to shift with the winds. Until recently, they were staffed mainly by Russians, and went by the workaday Slavic handles Okhotino, Ostrovets, Oyra, Ostroe and Olchan. But their reputations began to precede them, and last year the group reflagged in Georgia under names that sound lifted from a Cuban flamenco act: the Carmen, the Eva, the Isabella, the Ulla, the Juanita. Greenpeace now refers to them as the "Spanish Chorus Line."

They are, in short, the modern version of high-seas fugitives, fishing mainly on those fringes of national limits technically defined as "high seas," and flouting the authority of anyone who interrupts them. Their favourite quarry appears to be the redfish, a bug-eyed creature with spiny fins and an Archie Bunker mouth that is known to discriminating diners as "ocean perch." Like all slow-breeding groundfish, redfish have been dwindling lately in the North Atlantic. But the US$1,500 per tonne they command on the open market is a powerful motivator. Last May, when choppers and cutters from the Icelandic Coast Guard intercepted the Rostock Girls on the edge of the country's 12-mile limit, the poachers flat out ignored them. The Icelanders addressed them by loudspeaker, quoting international laws stipulating that unidentified vessels are assumed to be undermining conservation. But as one coast guard officer later griped to Maclean's: "We might as well have read them the Bible."

A few days later, says Matthiasson, the Carmen turned south and steamed 200 miles out to sea. There, with the Icelanders looking on, it rendezvoused with a refrigerated, Panamanian-flagged vessel called the Polestar. According to international fisheries treaties, no law-abiding country should have accepted these fish because they were caught by blacklisted vessels. And Icelandic authorities were initially heartened when ports in Japan and South Korea turned the Polestar away. But their hopes fell when a buyer surfaced at the port of Hong Kong, and the fish were divided into containers destined for a variety of Asian countries. One of those countries, says Matthiasson, was Japan.

The Rostock Girls, meanwhile, disappeared over the waves. Icelandic authorities tracked them to their Baltic stomping grounds, through Poland, Lithuania and on to Russia. But having protested to no avail after the boats called in past years at the ports of their so-called allies, authorities in Reykjavik weren't holding out much hope. They've even resorted to tipping off Greenpeace when they discover the ships' location, thinking shame might accomplish what international will cannot. The eco-group has gladly accepted the intelligence, painting "Stop Pirate Fishing" signs on the hulls of the ships as bemused crews look on. But as Tolvanen says: "It's a bit bizarre for us to be asked to do something the government should."

All of which puts the problem in the court of organizations like NAFO, who depend on individual member countries to carry out the rules of their conventions. Johanne Fischer, the organization's executive secretary, downplays the significance of pirate fishing in the North Atlantic, saying the number of vessels spotted during its surveillance flights has declined in recent years, while international co-operation improves. As evidence, she points to an agreement from that September summit - convened about the time the Rostock Girls were docking in Europe - requiring all 12 members of NAFO to close their ports to known pirate-fishing vessels except in emergencies. No dock, no fuel, no grub and certainly no landing illegal fish. "[The Rostock Girls] tried to land their catches and were turned away," Fischer adds from NAFO headquarters in Dartmouth, N.S. "So you could say they've already faced some consequences."

Perhaps. But the poachers did eventually sell the fish, which highlights the gulf that lies between the statements of fisheries alliances and the actions of their members. And even under the new rules, there seems little incentive for nations to do the right thing: investigating the boats is costly, legally complex and time-consuming, while ignoring them will produce little more than diplomatic protest. The result, says UBC's Pauly, is a bleak outlook for any species that hasn't already been fished out. "For every major collapse like that of the northern cod, we have 10 species that are eroding," he says ruefully. "You can't do any kind of work in fisheries these days and be optimistic."

Maclean's December 4, 2006