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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

World War over Toothfish?

Air Date: Week of

Antarctica is ruled by consensus of the 23 nations who form the Antarctica Treaty. But tensions have been mounting over fishing boats that are illegally catching increasingly rare toothfish, also known in the U.S. as: Chilean Sea Bass. Beth Clark, Director of the Antarctica Project, says boats from treaty members Spain, Norway and possibly the U-S, are flying flags of convenience and pursuing the fish. France and Britain have deployed warships to Antarctic waters, and New Zealand has sent up surveillance planes to stop the poachers. Ms. Clark, a member of the U-S delegation to this year’s Antarctica Treaty meeting, spoke to us by phone from the site of this year’s convention, Christchurch, New Zealand, and she told Steve Curwood that the toothfish may now be endangered.


CURWOOD: Antarctica has been a model for world peace. It is ruled by consensus by the 23 nations who have joined together under the Antarctica Convention, but recently tensions have been heating up over fishing boats that are illegally catching the increasingly rare toothfish, known in the US as Chilean sea bass. France and Britain have deployed warships to the Antarctic to stop the poachers, and New Zealand has sent up surveillance planes to aid in the effort. The Antarctica nations have agreed to strict controls on fishing in the region, but Beth Clark, a member of the US delegation to the convention, says these days boats from Spain, Norway, and the US, all members of the convention, are suspected of hunting the fish. Speaking to us from a phone from Christchurch, New Zealand, Ms. Clark said toothfish may now be in danger.

CLARK: Over the past 6 months, there has been an explosion in the number of illegal boats catching this fish, and from reports that I have heard they are now targeting the juveniles, which means the adults have been fished out.

CURWOOD: Now, how long does it take to become an adult toothfish?

CLARK: Like all animals in the Antarctic, toothfish are very slow growing. They can live up to 80 years, and they can grow up to about 5 feet. They don't mature until they're between 10 and 12 years old. The fish that are being targeted, I couldn't tell you the age but the size is about 6 inches. So that's way before they become an adult.

CURWOOD: So in other words, they're not able to reproduce if the babies are being caught.

CLARK: Exactly.

CURWOOD: Where are these illegally caught or at least endangered toothfish being sold?

CLARK: Japan is a very big market. And also, we've heard rumors that they're coming into the US. In the US this toothfish is known as Chilean sea bass, but just because you see Chilean sea bass on a menu doesn't mean it's caught illegally. There are a lot of legal fisheries surrounding Argentina and Chile. And also, there are some illegal fisheries in the CAMLR, the convention region, so there's no way of ascertaining at this point if you're eating legally or illegally caught toothfish.

CURWOOD: Does it make sense to eat any toothfish, or so-called Chilean sea bass, if the fish is endangered, no matter where it was caught?

CLARK: There is, you know, probably a good reason to be wary of eating it.

CURWOOD: Now, France, Britain, New Zealand, Norway, are cracking down on these poachers with surveillance planes, and even warships I gather --

CLARK: Yes --

CURWOOD: -- to protect their territorial waters. Do you think it's a good idea to see environmental agreements being enforced like this?

CLARK: No. It's actually, to me, very discouraging, and it's the first time there's been a crack in the Antarctic treaty system.

CURWOOD: So, what's to be done here, then?

CLARK: Well, nations have to agree, first and foremost, that they go after their nationals that are fishing down there illegally. They've got to agree collectively to some sort of enforcement mechanism that is a collective mechanism. My concern is not so much enforcement, even though I wish that everybody would follow the rules, but we know that's not real. My concern is that one boat, one warship, is going down from one country. And not that I think they shouldn't be there because you need to do something to stop this. It's going completely out of control. But I would like to see a treaty-wide mechanism to stop it, because at least that would mean the treaty is working, that nations are working together.

CURWOOD: The decline of fisheries is something that we see over and over and over again.

CLARK: Yeah.

CURWOOD: Is there anything from your work in the Antarctic that suggests to you a way that this trend can be stopped?

CLARK: Well, the CAMLR model is a very good model. It has always been looked to. Instead of looking at a single fish, it looks at the entire food chain, and it says okay, there might be 10,000 tons of fish. But the predators, the animals that eat this fish require 6,000 tons. So there's really only 4,000 tons available. And when the system is working, and when they only allow the fish to be caught that are excess, then the system works and then it's okay to fish. But what's happening is that for some reason, the fishers are very short-sighted around the world, and they plunge right in, they take everything out, then they go on to the next fishery. And they must realize that they're just shooting themselves in the foot. But for some reason it doesn't sink in. Maybe it's, they figure they'll just get rich now and then quit. So there is a way of fishing sustainably, but there has been very little evidence of it occurring in reality.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us.

CLARK: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Beth Clark is director of the Antarctica Project. Thanks for joining us.

CLARK: Thank you, Steve.



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