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Toothfish saga highlights plight of world fisheries

By Ed Stoddard


27th August 2003

It lives in deep frigid waters and has a face only a mother could love, yet the Patagonian Toothfish has become an unlikely "poster animal" for the global conservation movement.

Its plight -- and that of world fisheries -- has been cast into the spotlight by a 20-day chase that was winding down on Wednesday with armed South African officials attempting to board a Uruguayan ship suspected of poaching the rare and fish.

The Viarsa, suspected of illegally harvesting the fish also known as Chilean sea bass, has been pursued by an Australian customs ship through treacherous Antarctic waters since August 7 when it was first spotted in a remote Australian fisheries zone.

"In general fisheries the world over have had very bad times in recent years and the Patagonian toothfish has gone through a particularly bad time," Horst Kleinschmidt, a deputy director general in South Africa's environment department, told Reuters.

"Stocks off Marion Island (about 2,100 km southeast of Cape Town) have virtually collapsed... They are a slow breeder with a long life span and taking out the breeding stock hammers it forever in a day," he said.

A rather ugly fish with a protruding mouth, it can grow to 2.2 metres (seven feet) and weigh over 100 kg (220 pounds).

Its white flesh is prized in dining tables in the Far East and the United States, sparking a lucrative illegal trade that scientists fear could make it commercially extinct by 2007. One shipload can earn about $2 million.

Collapsing global stocks

The toothfish is not the only ocean dweller in deep trouble.

The United Nations says more than 70 percent of the world's commercially important fish stocks are either over-exploited, depleted, slowly recovering or close to the maximum sustainable level of exploitation.

Canada's east coast cod fishery is one of the most dramatic examples of a collapse directly linked to over-exploitation.

French explorers in the 16th century claimed they could throw baskets overboard and haul them up laden with fish. But commercial trawlers devastated the teeming schools of cod. "While seafood is the primary source of protein for many coastal people, especially the poor, the global demise of fisheries has not been driven only by nutritional needs," says the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

"Much of the catch is for luxury foods," says its Global Environment Outlook. This category includes the toothfish and many other species which have been plundered by modern vessels with sophisticated gear including high-tech fish finding sonars.

Demographics and poverty are also taking their toll.

"In 1994, an estimated 37 percent of the global population lived within 60 km of the coast -- more people than inhabited the planet in 1950," says UNEP.

But the problem even affects uninhabited areas like the remote and icy southern seas where the toothfish swims.

"There is little doubt that current fisheries activities constitute the single greatest environmental problem in the Southern Ocean," says UNEP.

"Antarctic fisheries began in the late 1960s with exploitation of the marbled rock cod, a species decimated in the first two years of the fishery," it says.