Illegal catches hurt fishermen and fish populations

Fish in crates after they were unloaded from a trawler at a port in Pattani, southern Thailand. 

Almost all the seafood Americans eat -- 90 percent, to be exact -- is imported. A new study from the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia found that as much of a third of wild-caught, imported seafood is caught illegally or without proper documentation.

The United States has one of the largest seafood markets in the world with these illegal imports potentially adding up to $2 billion dollars; a huge bite out of the pockets of American fishermen.

To understand why illegal catches are such a big deal just ask a fishermen.

“Well, it’s a lot harder because of the damage done to the stock,” says Willy Hatch, who runs a charter and commercial fishing boat in Falmouth, Mass. Hatch fishes for tuna and says a combination of fewer fish to catch, and cheap, illegal tuna imported from countries like Thailand and the Philippines drives the price down for fishermen like him.

“America is an expensive country to live in and operate and we’re held to the highest levels of conservation and we have to compete against other countries where they’re pretty much allowed to go hog wild,” he says.

“It's hugely more expensive,” says Logan Kock, vice president of strategic purchasing & responsible sourcing for Santa Monica Seafood, a distributor. He says limits on fishermen are important but the restrictions can cut into their profits. Kock points to one local fishery in particular.

"They had to design nets where the top edge is down about 30 feet -- that's to allow marine mammals and turtles to go above it. It has to have pingers on it, in case at night marine mammals come by, they'll be able to sense the presence of a net. Those guys can't fish within three miles because that's where young threshers are growing -- it's a nursery. They can't fish offshore at other times of the year because that's when other fish are breeding. They can't fish in the non-marine protected areas. There's an abundance of restrictions that are on them, that not only restrict the areas where they can fish but it also drives the cost of their fishing practices way up."

Kock notes illegal imports squeeze fishermen the most -- those working under the table drop prices to unload their catches, so law-abiding fishermen are often forced to drop their prices to compete. But he says the practice creates ripples.

“There’s the collateral fix because that fisherman has a boat, the boat needs ice, the boat needs fuel, the boat needs repairs. And so it's a community thing.”

*Meaghan Brosnan, manager of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Ending Illegal Fishing project, says this is neither a problem for the United States to fix on its own, nor one that other countries should tackle independently.

“This is a global problem -- it really is," she says.

Brosnan notes that almost a third of all fish populations in the world have been overfished. She says the supply chain needs more oversight, all fishing vessels should receive unique identification numbers, and ports should have more inspectors. Otherwise, resources will continue to be depleted:

“If at a certain point, if you take too many mom and dad fish, then there’s just not going to be enough to go around.”

Brosnan says that with big oceans where even aircraft carriers look tiny, trying to stop illegal fishing needs to be an international effort.


*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the manager of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Ending Illegal Fishing project. She is Meaghan Brosnan. The text has been corrected.

 

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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