Empty Seas

By Mort Rosenblum * –  Mort Report
Empty Seas: One
ALASSIO, Italy – If you hate those salted fishy slivers on pizza, Giuseppe Cormaci has encouraging news. Mediterranean anchovies tanked this year. But that means you won’t find much succulent sea bass, branzino, let alone bluefin tuna. Try, perhaps, linguine alle jellyfish?

“The anchovy catch is down by half,” Cormaci told me. Adjusting his battered hat, he continued, with the rueful smile of an unconvinced optimist: “It might get better again. Then again, it might collapse entirely.”
Like the name on his 24-foot boat — Lupo — he is a lone wolf. His son helped for two seasons but quit to tend bar on the beach. With the few euros’ profit left after fuel, repairs and nets during a 90-hour week, he can’t pay a crew. At 50, he belongs to an endangered species: the artisan fisherman.
The sea he knew so well is now full of surprise. Warming water brings jellyfish plagues, including the venomous Portuguese man o’ war. A great white shark just cruised the Spanish island of Majorca. Mostly, he sees high-tech foreign trawlers scoop out whatever they find and destroy breeding grounds.
Change the language and Cormaci is any of countless old salts I’ve interviewed in Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific in recent years. Climate shifts and pollution steadily worsen. Unchecked overfishing increases. Marketing spurs demand, and commercial fleets fish all the harder while they still can.
Conservationists focus on big stuff. The noble bluefin, as sleek and fast as a Ferrari in first gear, excites an otherwise apathetic public. But it dines on the small fry near the bottom of a complex marine food web that is the main diet of more than a billion people.
Anchovies are hardly confined to pizza. Fresh filets in Taggiasca olive oil in Alassio are worth a day’s drive. In Liguria, as everywhere else they school, they’ve fed coastal communities for as long as there have been nets. Likewise, with those little unrelated herrings: sardines.
When Portugal runs short of sardines, you know the end is nigh. Plump on a grill or canned in oil with fiery piri-piri, they define a nation. But stocks dropped from 106,000 tons in 2006 to 22,000 in 2016. Up the food chain, even Iberia’s beloved hake is fast growing scarcer.
Last year, the European Union ordered sardines off the menu for 15 years. The Portuguese government refused, forcing a compromise. Fleet operators challenged the science and blamed EU competitors. Families, meantime, wolf down sardinhas like there is no tomorrow.
At lunchtime in Lisbon recently, I found a typical hole in the wall near the port. Its front window display was a minuscule Monterrey Aquarium. I asked the waiter if fish were getting scarce. “Yes,” he said, shrugging insouciantly as he heaped cracked crab and clams near grilled sardines on my plate. Vinho verde dissolved my guilt.
Individual action matters, but saving the seas takes a concerted global effort. There is only one ocean, and it is being fished beyond sustainability, menacing even the tiny krill in Antarctica. Unbridled greed and controversy over the scale of this crisis blocks effective action.
Scientists keep close watch, but fish are hard to count. They’re invisible, and they move. Governments and industry manipulate data to avoid controls. If quotas are set, lax enforcement allows rampant cheating.
Down in Rome, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports the annual global catch has stayed near 80 million tons for years. Adding what is tossed overboard, unreported, or caught illegally, that is likely closer to 130 million. Parsing the details foretells calamity.
Fish farming now amounts to almost as much as wild catch. That’s supposed to be good news. In fact, it means huge amounts of “forage fish” hauled from the ocean are cooked down to pellets or paste to feed more valuable farmed salmon and ranched tuna.
I started my fishing trips in 2011, leading a team for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. We focused on the bony, bronze southern Pacific jack mackerel, decimated over decades to make fishmeal. A pound of farmed Chilean salmon could require as much as 10 pounds of mackerel hauled up by nets that wreak havoc on breeding grounds.
Daniel Pauly, the eminent University of British Columbia oceanographer, called jack mackerel the last of the buffaloes. “When they’re gone,” he told me, “everything will be gone … This is the closing of the frontier.”
Now jack mackerel are recovering. That is partly because fleets had fished so hard that they dispersed the stock and couldn’t fill their nets. But our report made some waves that splashed on front pages. European and U.S. authorities reacted.
That is only one species in a remote corner of the map. Yet it is evidence of what Pauly said at the outset: Ocean plunder won’t stop unless one major power gets serious about taking the lead and convincing the others to take sustained action.
The European Union has made some progress, but Spain, France and the Netherlands, among others, resist harsh measures. China is by far the worst offender, fast getting worse. That leaves the United States, which under Barack Obama tried to take the lead with little success.
United Nations laws of sea are only statements of good intent unless they are enforced; they seldom are. Oversight is left to RFMOs — regional fisheries management organizations — made up of government officials and industry representatives. Since decisions must be unanimous, any member country’s veto can block effective controls.
For instance, Mediterranean bluefin nearly vanished under the watch of an RFMO known as ICCAT. (Activists call it the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.) Environmental groups stirred up public interest to save it. Now, pressure from governments and fleet operators threaten it again.
Besides Atlantic bluefin, there are only two others: Pacific, mostly in Japanese waters, and southern, below Australia and New Zealand. Both are down to about 3 percent of what they were before commercial fishing targeted them generations ago.
Obama set aside Pacific marine reserves. John Kerry, as secretary of state, convened a global “ocean summit” in Washington to rally support. Under the 1976 bipartisan Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Navy and Coast Guard cracked down on illegal fishing in U.S. waters. They helped small island nations keep track of poachers on the high seas.
Donald Trump sees fish in terms of immediate profit and the ocean floor as a source of rare minerals or oil exploitation. He has rolled backed many of Obama’s safeguards. A laxer version of the 1976 act approved by the House is now in the Senate.
In a changed diplomatic climate, China has dropped nearly all pretense, building sophisticated fleets to plunder at will. When Trump sits down to deal with Xi Jinping, fish are not on the menu.
At this point, the obvious question arises. So now what? And that’s tough to answer.
When the EU pursued illegal fishing more energetically, it banned imports from nations that cheat. But it is too easy for vessels to transship their catch to disguise its origin. China, in any case, has a huge domestic demand and a diminishing need to export.
Educating consumers is not enough. Misinformation — some of it willful diversion by people who sell fish — can worsen the problem. “Sustainable” is too often tossed around as meaningless buzzword.
When I began my research, Amanda Nickson at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington faulted a lack of public pressure. “It’s as if doctors fought breast cancer with no chemotherapy, radiation or surgery and only tried a few pills until patients die,” she told me.
An Australian who knows her facts and speaks her mind, she hammers away at RFMO meetings along with other conservationists and marine scientists. After one frustrating meeting, she reflected over a beer: “We only have to catch less fish, and they will last forever.”
I called Nickson last week for an update. Despite some victories, she said, fish were losing the battle.
Much can be done — and much is — as subsequent Mort Reports will investigate. But the problem is vastly complex, more human than piscine. Here in the placid little port of Alessio, small vignettes make the big picture dead clear.
So many Africans who drown beyond the horizon are desperately fleeing the fate Giuseppe Cormaci faces. Big fleets wipe out what survives warming waters, altered currents, plastic crap and sea chemistry change. When their livelihood goes, they head north.
If his anchovies collapse, so will bluefin. In the end, it comes down to political will. Civic-mind citizens might forego luscious tuna belly sashimi, but others won’t, whatever its price. Authorities need to set limits – and enforce them. An American president could set the tone.
In my own mind, I’m haunted by a recurring image. When the last surviving piece of toro is carved from a bluefin belly, it will end up, overlooked and uneaten, at a buffet table in the gardens of Mar-a-Lago.
Empty Seas: Two
PARIS – When it comes to fish, you can’t keep a good plunderer down. Take the 50,000-ton Lafayette, a floating factory four times the size of the biggest super trawler, able to process a half-million tons a year as it prowled off South America, northern Europe and Africa.
Pacific Andes, a global ocean-emptying empire based in Hong Kong, spent $100 million to refit the old oil tanker in China and launched it under a Russian flag in 2008. It was banned on southern Pacific high seas for cheating on quotas a few years later, so the company bought its way into Peru and kept it within territorial limits.
In Peru, it was renamed the Damanzaihao and reregistered in Mongolia, which is not picky about enforcing regulations. It switched to Belize, which later withdrew its flag. After legal battles in Peru, among travails elsewhere, Pacific Andes went belly up last year. Its former flagship was sold for a dime on the dollar to Russian owners seeking other waters to plunder.
The Lafayette-Damanzaihao saga reflects how the big players operate. A small-scale vignette shows the other extreme. Paris markets offer vanishing wild Atlantic salmon from the Basque country at up to $60 a pound. Fishermen net them as they swim back inland to spawn.
As fisheries collapse, industrial fleets and small-fry artisans alike work all the harder while there is something left to catch. Rather than enforce strict limits, governments help them with subsidies and legal loopholes.
Back in 1998, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organizations said global fleets “are 2.5 times larger than needed.” Today, with far more demand, shipyards are booming. China and Russia alone each spend billions on high-tech vessels to mercilessly pursue dwindling stocks.
A fresh report from the University of British Columbia and the University of Western Australia says commercial fleets operating since the 1950s now overfish 90 percent of the ocean (there is only one). And their catches are dropping dramatically.
Such groups as Oceana and Pew Charitable Trusts lobby governments and sound alarms with public education. Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd hound outlaw fleets. But given the scale of plunder, even these substantial efforts amount to a drop in the ocean.
Conservationists often work at cross purposes with conflicting ideas about how to meet complex challenges. And the industry exploits public confusion, which allows them to keep on fishing until their nets and long lines can’t haul up enough to turn a profit.
The rise and fall of Pacific Andes International Holdings shows what fish are up against.
At its peak, PacAndes traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange and reported more than 100 subsidiaries under various branches with an impenetrable network of many more affiliates. In 2011, when I began investigating, its Singapore-based China Fishery Group reported a 27.2 percent profit, up to $685.5 million, 55 percent of total income. That included the Lafayette’s looting and operations in the Peru.
PacAndes was registered to holding companies in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. One major investor was the U.S.-based Carlyle Group, which held $150 million in shares before it divested. But it was a family business controlled by its director, Ng Joo Siang.
Ng was so elusive, shielded by public-relations flacks, that I began to think of him as the James Bond nemesis, Dr. No. In 2011, a source gave me his Chinese cellphone number, and I called him from the lobby of his Hong Kong aerie. He agreed to let me come up.
At 52, sleek in a bespoke suit, Ng turned out to be a jovial Louisiana State University graduate hooked on golf. His Malaysian Chinese father moved the family to Hong Kong and started a seafood business in 1986. When the board met, his father’s portrait gazed down at his widow, who was chairwoman, his three sons and a daughter.
“My father told me the oceans were limitless,” he said, “but that was a false signal. We don’t want to damage the resources, to be blamed for damage. I don’t think our shareholders would like it. I don’t think our children would like it very much.”
But he snorted when I noted that the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO) set a limit that year of 520,000 tons to keep jack mackerel from collapsing. The Lafayette alone could process that many if its feeder vessels managed to catch them all.
“Based on what, on this?” Ng replied, thrusting a moistened finger into the air as if checking the wind. “There is no science,” he said. “The (organization) has no science. How much money has Vanuatu or Chile or whoever put in to understand about fisheries?”
In fact, Chile spent $10.5 million in 2011 on its Instituto de Fomento Pesquero, which recommended quotas based on hard science. In the intrigues of fish politics, Ng sided with Peru, where the government routinely ignored the advice of its own experts. PacAndes operated 32 vessels in Peru at the time, and later bought a major Peruvian company.
The bony, bronze little jack mackerel is barely known and loved mostly in Africa, where is cheap protein. Mostly, it is reduced to fishmeal to feed more popular farmed species or pigs and chickens. But it is what’s known as a pelagic forage fish, crucial to the marine food web.
PacAndes pushed beyond every limit it could. The Lafayette operated with a half-dozen catcher trawlers that fed its huge processing plants. As fishing grounds collapsed, even subsidized fuel and official complacency couldn’t fill its holds. And it is only one example among many commercial fleets.
In New Zealand, back then, I talked with Martini Gotje, a Dutch expatriate who crewed aboard the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior when French agents sank it in Auckland harbor in 1985. Gotje tracked vessels with a bank of computers attuned to satellites. He faulted overcapacity — legal and yet devastating.
The first priority, he said, should be saving fish, not the fishing industry. “The Lafayette raised the game to an incredible level, and Holland is very much involved,” he told me. “There are way too many boats, just simply way too many boats.”
Today, seven years later, there are simply way, way, way too many boats across the world, and there are 700 million more mouths to feed.
The case of jack mackerel shows how greed thwarts good intentions and common sense. Over two decades since the late 1980s, stocks plummeted from an estimated 30 million tons to less three million, mostly because of Chilean fleets. Chile saw the light and worked with other fishing states to set up SPRFMO. That, ironically, hastened the stock’s demise.
As Gotje noted, the Netherlands-based Pelagic Freezer-Trawler Association, PFA, representing 25 mostly Dutch vessels flagged in the European Union, was also a major predator. Gerard van Balsfoort, the PFA president, told me why.
“It was one of the few areas where still you could get free entry,” van Balsfoort said. “It looked as though too many vessels would head south, but there was no choice. If you were too late in your decision to go there, they could have closed the gate.”
By 2010, SPRFMO tallied 75 vessels in its region. Today, scientists say jack mackerel are slowly recovering. That, fleet operators say, is because decimated stocks were so scattered that it has not been worth the effort and expense to chase them.
Like most fish stories, this one could go on forever. Climate change warms waters and alters currents. Plastics and garbage islands choke rich fishing grounds. Seabed mining plows the ocean floor. But the main threat is rampant overfishing.
Unless governments stop condoning, if not encouraging, the plunder, big fleets and coastal fishermen are likely to keep at it until there is nothing left to catch.
* Mort Rosenblum  joined Associated Press in 1965. In 1967, at 23, AP sent him to cover mercenary wars in Congo. He covered the Biafra secession from Nigeria, Vietnam, the violent birth of Bangladesh, Central American mayhem, Israeli wars, the Iron Curtain collapse, Bosnia and Kosovo, and two Gulf Wars, among other major conflicts. Based in Argentina in the 1970s, he broke the first stories on the “dirty war.”  He was editor of the International Herald Tribune from 1979 to 1981 but returned to AP as special correspondent, based in Paris. Rosenblum left AP in 2004. In 2008, he launched the quarterly, dispatches, with co-editor Gary Knight and publisher Simba Gill.