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Alaska Fish Factor: King Crab Fishers Welcome Crack Down on Illegal Fishing

Salmonids Crustaceans Sustainability +6 more

US - Fish pirates are coming under fire as more countries band together to stop them from pilfering the worlds oceans. So called Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing accounts for one-fifth of global catches, according to the Global Ocean Commission, valued at $10 to $25 billion each year.

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Last month, at its annual Intergovernmental Consultative Committee meeting held in Portland, Oregon, and after years in the making, the U.S. and Russia signed a bilateral agreement to combat IUU fishing. The pact, which has strong support from the Pacific Northwest/Alaska regions as well as environmental groups, aims to improve coordination among the multiple government agencies in both countries to combat IUU fishing.

That will mean a big break for Bering Sea king crab - the poster child for being whacked by a pirate fishery.

For decades, Alaska crabbers have competed against king crab illegally caught by Russian fleets.

Direct losses to Bering Sea crabbers are estimated at $600 million since 2000, according to an analysis by the Juneau-based McDowell Group. Based on the weights of Russian crab purchased by global buyers versus official Russian harvest figures, pirated king crab totaled nearly 100 million pounds in 2013, accounting for 40 percent of the world market.

Mark Gleason, executive director of the trade group Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, was thrilled with the US/Russia agreement.

“The fact that there has been a formal acknowledgement between the U.S. and Russia that illegal fishing is a problem, and it is an issue that is worthy of cooperation between our two countries – it is unprecedented, and a very welcome change,” Gleason said, adding that it is hard to put a number on Alaska’s fishing losses from the criminal activity.

“If we’ve lost $600 million because of decreased ex-vessel prices, then obviously the fishing dependent communities have also lost millions in taxes and landing revenues. So it’s not just an issue that impacts crab harvesters, it hurts communities, the State of Alaska and frankly, it impacts the legal Russian producers because we all are competing in the same markets. So there’s a lot of pain to go around.”

Indeed there is. According to a 2014 study called “Estimates of illegal and unreported fish in seafood imports to the USA” in the journal Marine Policy, nearly 90 percent of U.S. seafood is imported, and as much as one-third of that is caught illegally or without proper documentation.

“This trade represents between 4 percent and 16 percent of the value of the global illegal fish catch and reveals the unintentional role of the USA, one of the largest seafood markets in the world, in funding the profits of illegal fishing,” the study says.

Among the worst IUU violations: up to 40 percent of tuna imported to the U.S. from Thailand, nearly 45 percent of pollock imports from China, and 70 percent of salmon imports. (The latter species are likely to have been caught in Russian waters, but transshipped at sea and processed in China.)

The USA has been slow in imposing IUU trade regulations that require things like seafood traceability and certificates of origin. The primary U.S. law to discourage imports of illegally caught fish is the Lacey Act, which is intended to stop imports and sales of products that “are extracted in violation of the source country’s conservation provisions or international law.”

However, the Lacey Act as currently implemented does not include any proactive mechanisms for detecting illegal fish products as they enter the U.S. and can only be used to sanction violators once they have been discovered.

Meanwhile, the U.S./Russia Intergovernmental Committee will now begin developing a framework for implementation of the new IUU agreement to curtail pirate catches of crab, pollock, cod, salmon and other species.

An international Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) that would cut off markets from fish pirates languishing in Congress, after being passed by the Senate a year ago. The Ports measure would strengthen port inspections, toughen standards for foreign flagged vessels and prevent illegal products from entering world markets. And in an IUU victory hailed last week, a Spanish court doled out three years in jail and $17 million in fines to Chilean toothfish pirates, who attempted to scuttle their falsely flagged boat, the F/V Thunder.

Salmon stats - Alaska’s 2015 salmon catch of nearly 257 million fish is the second largest ever, behind only the record 273 million salmon taken in 2013.

The numbers are still being crunched in terms of values and the average prices paid to fishermen, but those totals will be far less than last year.

The shortfall stems from lower salmon prices across the board, driven especially by the 50-cents a pound base price for a catch of 36 million sockeye salmon taken at Bristol Bay. That harvest totaled about $95 million at the docks, compared to $193 million last year.

In all, the statewide sockeye catch topped 53 million reds.

Pink salmon catches set records in several regions this summer -- at Prince William Sound fishermen hauled in more than 98 million humpies, over 29 million were taken at Kodiak and over 16 million pinks were caught at the Alaska Peninsula.

The statewide pink salmon take totaled nearly 184 million fish. At an average weight of 3.5 pounds each at 20-cents a pound, the value of the pink pack will likely total around $128 million.

For other salmon: The Chinook catch of around half a million is typical for the summer. Catches of nearly 16 million chums and 3.6 million coho salmon were both a million fish shy of preseason expectations.

Fish polls – A majority of Alaskan and British Columbians are concerned about mining issues in transboundary river watersheds, according to polls in the respective countries. The two polls were commissioned by Salmon Beyond Borders and SkeenaWild, and conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. They included 815 respondents from B.C. and 500 from Alaska during late August.

Some highlights from a press release include:

  • Nearly three-quarters of Alaska respondents expressed concern about a mining waste spill in B.C. affecting shared watersheds, with the number jumping to 86 percent for Southeast Alaska respondents.
  • Seventy-six percent of Alaska respondents want Alaska to have a seat at an international table to address concerns about upstream B.C. mining in shared transboundary watersheds. Forty-five percent said their vote for a member of Congress hinges on elected officials pushing for this seat at the table.
  • Sixty-five percent of British Columbians were less likely to support mines in northwest B.C. that could affect the integrity of Alaska’s water quality.