U.S. Sets Net for Poachers of Chilean Sea Bass

WASHINGTON, DC, March 28, 2002 (ENS) - The Chilean sea bass, a deep water fish that lives in the cold waters of Antarctica, is in such great demand for the world's specialty markets and luxury restaurants that illegal overfishing is endangering the species.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. State Department today put poachers on notice that the United States is strictly enforcing import regulations and cooperating with the international community to prevent overfishing of the species.


Chilean sea bass commands a high price in upscale restaurants (Photo credit unknown)
The Chileans were the first to market toothfish commercially in the United States, earning it the name Chilean sea bass, although it is really not a bass and it is not always caught in Chilean waters. It is also known as Patagonian toothfish for its large razor sharp teeth.

A different species type than the sea bass caught in U.S. waters, it is a deep water fish that can live up to 50 years and grow to weigh over 200 pounds.

The United States is part of the 24 member nation Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CAMLR), which has agreed to catch limits for Chilean sea bass, and implemented a document system to track catches.

U.S. Customs and NOAA Fisheries regulations do not allow Chilean sea bass imports without this document and a valid dealer permit issued by NOAA.

The U.S. imports about 10,000 tons of fresh and frozen Chilean sea bass, somewhere between 15 to 20 percent of the worldwide catch.

Last summer, NOAA's Office for Law Enforcement and the U.S. Customs Service seized two separate illegal shipments of Chilean sea bass totaling over 35 tons of fish. These shipments, imported from South Africa and collectively valued at over $100,000, were confiscated following coordination with law enforcement from the South African government.


Toothfish photographed by the Aberdeen University Deep Ocean Submersible (AUDOS) in the South Atlantic in 1997. (Photo courtesy Aberdeen University)
Legal U.S. imports account for about 15 to 20 percent of the world market for Chilean sea bass. Argentina, France, Chile, Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Korea and Uruguay are the primary countries that harvest the species.

Chilean sea bass are caught mostly by hooks attached to longlines, strung behind fishing boats. Some Chilean sea bass is caught in waters off the coast of Chile, then iced and shipped to the United States fresh. The majority of Chilean sea bass is harvested in distant waters of Antarctica, frozen onboard factory vessels, and shipped several weeks to several months later. Both fresh and frozen Chilean sea bass are available for consumption in the United States.

The U.S. agencies are advising restaurateurs to "insist that their fish brokers verify the source of their Chilean sea bass and buy the fish only if you are shown the proper documentation."

"Ask the seller to verify that the fish was legally caught, in accordance with management provisions of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources," NOAA advises. "Even if the seller does not know, the fact that the question was asked will send a message to distributors that consumers are aware of and concerned about the problem of illegal fishing and imports."

In 2000, NOAA Fisheries says, more than 16,000 tons of Chilean sea bass were legally harvested in the Antarctic management area. "Estimates vary, but there may be up to twice that amount taken illegally."


Alleged poacher of Chilean sea bass the Grand Prince in Mauritius. December 1999. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
At its annual meeting in 1999, CCAMLR estimated that in most areas 30 to 100 percent of the toothfish catch is taken by illegal and unregulated longliners. In 1997 the total illegal catch of Patagonian toothfish was around 100,000 metric tons with a value of over US$500 million.

Chilean sea bass is not an endangered species, but continued poaching could place the species at risk. Some Chilean sea bass fisheries are managed in a responsible manner, NOAA Fisheries says, "but there are some areas where the species has been and continues to be overfished."

Other nations are fighting toothfish pirates with varying degrees of success. France's sustained campaign against Southern Ocean toothfish piracy came under legal assault in April 2001, as the owners of the controversial vessel Grand Prince sought to reduce a $1.5 million bond for its release.

The International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in 2000 had slashed the size of the bonds demanded by France to release two other suspected toothfish pirates, but in this case the tribunal rejected the Grand Prince's bid.

Also last April, a toothfish poacher was seized south of Cape Town by South African and Australian defense forces after a 2,200 nautical mile chase across the Southern Ocean. It was the first time that the two countries worked together to arrest a suspected poacher.

The Australian government said in a statement released on July 22, 1998, "If illegal and unregulated fishing continues at the current level the population of Patagonian Toothfish will be so severely decimated that within the next two to three years the species will be commercially extinct. Some areas are already showing signs of this."


Crew from the Greenpeace M/V Arctic Sunrise protest in Mauritius as a crane removes Patagonian toothfish from the known pirate vessel, the Rita. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Greenpeace, which has chased and caught toothfish pirate vessels, believes CCAMLR should declare and enforce a moratorium on fishing for toothfish.

The international environmental group would like to see a moratorium remain in place until the illegal and unregulated fishery has been driven out. Then the remaining toothfish stocks assessed for their ecological ability to support a commercial fishery, and regulations are in place to adequately manage any fisheries that are permitted to resume.

Greenpeace says a moratorium should be supported by an international trade ban in toothfish, ideally under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).