WASHINGTON — Illegal fishing undermines efforts to stop overfishing and shrinks the profits of legal commercial fishermen, the oceans chiefs of the United States and the European Union declared on Wednesday, as they pledged to cooperate to nab fish pirates.
Although it's a global problem, the U.S. and the European Union declared they have a big responsibility for solving it because they catch and import so much seafood. The EU is the world's top seafood importer, followed by Japan and the U.S.
Illegal fishing is one of the most serious threats to American fishing jobs and the health of the world's oceans, said Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA says the illegal operations allow pirates to cut corners and lower their costs, and so they have an unfair competitive advantage. In the world's poorest countries, the large pirate vessels take fish that's needed by subsistence fishermen, Lubchenco said at a news conference here.
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Her European counterpart, Maria Damanaki, who visited Washington to sign the agreement on Wednesday, said that an EU report estimated that pirates globally take 20 percent of the catch, but some environmental groups estimate it's 30 percent.
"The truth is, we don't know exactly, but we have to find out," she said.
The lack of information makes it difficult for consumers to know whether much of their seafood was legally and sustainably caught. In the U.S., more than 80 percent of seafood is imported. About half of the imports are wild-caught fish, and half are farm-raised.
"We don't have a real good handle on the extent of illegal imports," Lubchenco said.
She said that the agreement she and Damanaki signed calls for the U.S. and the EU to work together to identify pirate vessels and deny them port entry and also to train more science observers and enforcement personnel.
Under Damanaki's leadership as commissioner for fisheries and maritime affairs, the EU in 2010 started to require that all fish it imported or caught had to have a certificate showing its legality. Damanaki said her goal is to get international support for a global certificate.
Lubchenco said the United States didn't plan a certificate program but instead would rely on the countries where fishing vessels are registered to make sure they operate legally. The U.S. already restricts port entry for vessels on the piracy lists of international regional fisheries organizations that it belongs to.
The U.S. also can impose trade sanctions on countries that don't take steps to stop fish piracy.
Global economic losses from fish piracy are estimated at $10 billion to $23.5 billion a year, Lubchenco said.
The Pew Environment Group, a conservation organization that promotes a global campaign against fish piracy, said on its website that the high seas today are like the Wild West with no sheriff. It said large fishing vessels operated by pirates keep fishing by moving around and changing their vessels' names or flags. Illegal fishing includes failing to report catches, ignoring conservation rules, fishing in closed areas and using banned equipment.
A global fisheries enforcement system is needed, including a global registry of fishing vessels, stricter rules at ports and a system for nations to share information, "essentially an Interpol for the oceans," the group's managing director, Joshua Reichert, said in a statement on Wednesday.
"We are committed to assisting these two governments in reversing the tide of illegal fishing, which is significantly damaging many of the world's fisheries and depriving millions of people of basic food security and the ability to earn a livelihood from the sea," Reichert said.
NOAA on Wednesday also released its 2010 report on the U.S. fishing industry. It said American commercial fishermen landed 8.2 billion pounds of seafood in 2010, an increase of 200 million pounds over 2009.
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