Why I care about a bony fish with oddly shaped fins

Looting the Seas III project manager Mort Rosenblum talks about his experience reporting the story for ICIJ and BBC World News with a multi-country team.

I set off after the vanishing jack mackerel with trepidation. Who would care? It’s hard to love a bony fish with oddly shaped fins and oily flesh that swims in shoals far away in the southern Pacific. But as oceanographer Daniel Pauly told me, they are the last buffalo. Industrial fleets, moving southward, have hammered one fishery after another. When the jack mackerel are gone, Pauly said, everything will be gone because the expansion will be finished.

Ten months later, I wrapped up tve’s BBC documentary with this alarming but unavoidable conclusion:

“People keep saying we’ll find something else . . . We’re at the point where there really is nothing else . . . Once these fish stocks collapse, we won’t have them. The only solution is for us to get real, to understand the problem at whatever level and whatever way – to get it, to finally get it that this is not limitless. This is not limitless.”

This was the third and final part of “Looting the Seas,” by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Earlier award-winning installments looked at the Mediterranean bluefin tuna and depredation around the world by Spanish fleets.

Mar Cabra, a young Spanish ICIJ member, dug deeply in Europe and plumbed arcane databases. We relied heavily on two hard-nosed investigative reporting groups, CIPER in Chile and IDL-Reporteros in Peru.  I spent a month in South America and then went to New Zealand.  In Hong Kong and Holland, I talked to main players: heads of giant fishing companies. On tiny islands at extremes of the earth – above the Arctic Circle and off New Zealand, eccentric ex-sailors showed me how they track fleets that catch jack mackerel.

For the BBC documentary, ICIJ member Steve Bradshaw of tve went to Peru and then crashed a crucial session in Santiago of the regional management group that has tried in vain to protect jack mackerel. And then I returned to Chile with William Treharne-Jones, who managed to get a pencil-powered old street reporter to work on camera.

Disappearing fish, not surprisingly, can be hard to find. We flew south to the earthquake-shattered port of Talcahuano. Starting early and moving fast, we found a group of “gatos” – cats – old-style freebooters who tried to hide the crates of jack mackerel they had acquired from an arriving fleet. We filmed a reeking plant when the imperiled fish are reduced to meal for salmon farms.

At the Chilean Navy base in Talcahuano, helpful officers showed us their elaborate tracking system. They zeroed in on giant trawlers, including the world’s largest fish-factory ship, the Russian-flagged Lafayette owned by Pacific Andes in Hong Kong, working a thousand miles to the west.

After interviews with government officials, scientists, company executives, and artisan fishermen struggling to survive, a clear picture emerged. And at the University of Concepcion, marine biologist Eduardo Tarifeño drew a conclusion based on his years of close study. Jack mackerel have collapsed, first because of Chilean plunder and then by foreign fleets that overfish in what is essentially a free-for-all. Now, he said, only a moratorium can save them.

Duncan Currie, a New Zealand lawyer with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition put this into global perspective.  Jack mackerel swim in clearly defined waters, pursued by relatively few vessels from a small number of countries. If we can’t save them, he concluded, what can we save?

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