• The Financial District


Nearly 170 years after Herman Melville wrote of the dreaded creatures of the deep, another marine horror is just becoming visible as satellite and other imagery has revealed “dark fleets” of fishing boats that turn off their transponders and plunder the ocean’s bounty, The Economist said in a special report.

“Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing accounts for a staggering 20% to 50% of the global catch. It is one reason fish stocks are plummeting: Just a fifth of commercial species are sustainably fished. Illegal operators rob mostly poor coastal states of over $20-billion a year and threaten the livelihoods of millions of small fishermen. North Korean coastal waters have been so pillaged that its fishermen have to motor their rickety craft far out into stormy seas to fill their nets. Thousands have drowned,” the report added.

The damage from illicit fishing goes well beyond fish stocks. Operators committing one kind of crime are likely to be committing others, too—cutting the fins off sharks, or even running guns or drugs. Many are also abusing their crews. Tens of thousands of migrant workers, mainly from Southeast Asia, man the world’s fleets. Many toil at sea in vile conditions with violent masters, sometimes for years at a time. A lot of them are in debt bondage; and a fishing boat is a lot harder to escape from than a factory.

“At sea, technology can help. Electronic monitoring promises a technological revolution on board—Australian and American fleets are leading the way. Cameras combined with machine learning can spot suspicious behaviour and even identify illicit species being brought on board. They should be compulsory as a condition of access to the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that define a country’s control over resources such as fish. They should also be made compulsory even when vessels are on the high seas. Equally, national regulators should set basic labor standards at sea. If countries fail to follow the rules, coastal states should bar their fishing fleets from their waters. Fish-eating nations should allow imports only from responsible fleets,” The Economist report argued.

“Above all, governments should agree at the wto to scrap the subsidies that promote overfishing. Of the $35 billion a year lavished on the industry, about $22 billion helps destroy fish stocks, mainly by making fuel too cheap. Do away with subsidies and forced labor, and half of high-seas fishing would no longer be profitable. Nor would that of China’s environmentally devastating bottom-trawling off the West African coast. Such abuses would disappear overnight. Some of the money that was saved could help restore coastal fisheries for millions of small-scale fisherfolk—underwriting temporary moratoriums on fishing and creating no-catch zones. And it could help establish fish farming, nourished by insect larvae. Fishing does not have to be a fishy business,” the magazine concluded.

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