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Fishing Quotas Expected After ICIJ Exposé

The UN estimates that 85 percent of the world's fish stocks are beyond sustainable levels. We looked into why nobody was taking action; here's how we did it.

Last week a key vote in the Chilean Senate finally unblocked years-long efforts to regulate fishing in the once-rich waters of the southern Pacific. Chile’s ratification of the convention governing the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), the body charged with protecting fish stocks in the area, now clears the way to put legally binding quotas in place. 

In January, the ICIJ investigation Looting the Seas III revealed how Asian, European and Latin American fleets have devastated fish stocks in the southern seas while geopolitical rivalry delayed ratification of the convention. Following the ICIJ exposé and a key meeting of the SPRFMO in Santiago, member countries Australia, Korea, Russia and Chile took the decisive step. 

“The fact that our stories were published in major media worldwide, from Australia to Chile, likely helped officials grasp the extent of the problem,” says ICIJ deputy director Marina Walker Guevara. “If governments follow through, this can be the beginning of the end of ocean plundering in the southern seas.”

Jack mackerel, the investigation showed, has decreased from around 30 million tons to less than three in just two decades. It is an essential component of aquaculture: more than 5 kilos of jack mackerel are used to raise each kilo of farmed salmon.

“The stories revealed a free-for-all that was happening in plain sight while governments responsible for policing the fleets dragged their feet,” says Walker Guevara.

The investigation was widely published across the globe. The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde (France) and Trouw (Netherlands) carried it prominently on their front pages. Publications from the New York Times to the Sydney Morning Herald to Centro de Investigación  Periodística in Chile featured the report.  A documentary based on the investigation’s findings aired on BBC World News TV in the spring.

Sources have told us that the investigation was discussed at the meeting of the SPRFMO in Santiago, which took place just one week after our publication. The probe also prompted a parliamentary debate in the Netherlands on the effect of the overfishing by the Dutch fleet in the area. 

Duncan Currie, a New Zealand-based environment lawyer with the Deep Seas Conservation Coalition, said the ICIJ investigation, and subsequent BBC documentary, “enormously raised the profile of the decimation of the jack mackerel stocks at a critical time when a decision had to be taken.” He added that the story, and the presence of cameras and reporters at the Chile meeting, “showed delegates that the attention of the world was on them, and had a definite and distinct result in forcing all countries to wanting to be seen to be doing the right thing.”

Walker Guevara says this was a perfect cross-border story for ICIJ to investigate.

“We picked this topic because illegal fishing is a thriving black market that operates at a global scale. The UN estimates that 85 percent of the world’s fish stocks are at the very limit of – or beyond – sustainable levels.”

“We wanted to explore not only the environmental aspects of the story but also the criminality involved in the fishing business and the failure of governments to act.”

“We saw a lot of reporting value in the fact that this little-known fish is turned into feed for farmed salmon. So, basically, even if some of us have never seen jack mackerel on the supermarket counter, we are all eating it with each forkful of salmon. And because of that demand and a lack of regulation, the fish is almost gone. That’s what brings this story home.”

In Chile, ICIJ’s data analysis proved the concentration of most of the jack mackerel fishing rights in the hands of just eight powerful groups. The investigation also showed how governments systematically enabled them to flout science and secure unrealistically high quotas.

Despite the Peruvian government denying access to its fishing database, ICIJ’s exclusive access to official catch records revealed widespread fraud at fishmeal plants that allowed companies to overfish and evade taxes. At least 630,000 tons of fish – worth nearly $200 million as fishmeal –“vanished” over two and a half years.

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