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Illegal Fishing Puts the Rest of Us on the Hook

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We’ve seen a spate of news stories recently on illegal fishing in northeast U.S. ocean waters, as enforcement officials take action on unreported catch. Some of the numbers are eye-popping. One bust involved 56,000 pounds of illegally caught and unreported summer flounder, also known as fluke. Another charge alleged 86,000 unreported pounds of the same fish over three years.

Research indicates that those figures are no fluke—pardon the pun. In fact, these recent incidents represent only a small fraction of the illegal and unreported catch in our waters. Studies show that most illegal fishing in the region involves cheating on rules regarding the amount, type, or size of fish allowed to be caught, misreporting in dealer reports, or fishing in places set aside to protect fish habitat and spawning areas. Few people realize the extent of illegal fishing, the harm it can do to our ocean resources, and the ways in which this cheating undermines efforts to measure and sustainably manage fisheries.   

For example, a study published in the journal Marine Policy in 2010 estimated that somewhere from 12 to 24 percent of New England’s total catch of groundfish (bottom-dwelling fish such as cod, flounder, and haddock) was taken illegally. How much fish is that? Well, when the authors took the midpoint of that estimate (18 percent) and applied it to the actual landings from the time the study was conducted, they found that the illegal catch would amount to more than 11 million pounds of fish, worth about $13 million.

And what if those illegally caught fish had instead been left in the water where they could grow and reproduce? The researchers give an estimate of that loss, too. Over five years those fish could have contributed some 65 million pounds to the overall biomass of the groundfish stock. That extra supply would be a welcome bounty today, when many groundfish populations are so low that the fishery has been declared a federal disaster, requiring tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer assistance.

Fisheries managers are responding to some problem areas. In the mid-Atlantic, for example, officials recently suspended use of a controversial "set-aside" program that had allegedly been exploited to hide catch that exceeded quotas. And New England’s fishery managers have started looking into reports of vessels employing net-liners and other fishing gear modifications that result in fish being caught under the legal size limit.

This “missing catch” from illegal fishing also complicates the work of scientists and managers who need an accurate picture of what’s really happening on the water. The actual mortality, or amount of fish killed, is a key piece of information for estimating fish populations and setting sustainable fishing levels. 

The Marine Policy study found that even commercial fishermen assume that about 10 to 15 percent of their colleagues are routinely breaking the rules at sea. The researchers say that the odds of getting caught are slim, while the payoff from cheating is “nearly five times the economic value of expected penalties.” Too often, it seems, crime does pay when it comes to illegal fishing.

All this illicit activity takes a toll on those fishermen who do follow the rules. The researchers surveyed fishermen and discovered that many believe that illegal fishing “will prevent them from ever benefiting from stock rebuilding programs.” This finding underscores one of the greatest damages. Hardworking fishermen who do the right thing as stewards of the public resource are cheated of their just reward of higher catches in the future.  Although enforcement may be unpopular to some, it is critical for any well-managed fishery.

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Jeff Young

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