It was one of the world’s last great fisheries, and a staple of the global food chain – the silvery fish called jack mackerel, or ‘jurel’ which thronged the South Pacific. But unnoticed by the rest of the world, jack mackerel stocks have crashed – declining by 90 percent in two decades as a result of rampant industrial overfishing. An investigation by Mort Rosenblum, lead reporter of the ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) has revealed that a global convention intended to save jack mackerel led instead to a disastrous ‘Race to Fish’ as faraway nations like Russia, China, the Netherlands and other EU countries vied with Pacific states to establish fishing quotas.
Peruvian marine biologist Patricia Majluf says “Jack mackerel was thought to be inexhaustible, there was supposed to be a huge stock that would never end now it’s gone.” Jack mackerel are an essential part of the marine food chain. They are a staple fish in Chile and other parts of South America, but they are fished by the industrial trawlers mainly to provide fishmeal to feed to farmed salmon.
Says Mort: “So this means – say – someone sitting in New York or London or Singapore who’s eating a high quality salmon who says ‘Well I’ve never heard of jack mackerel’ – but with every bite of salmon, they’re eating up ten bites of jack mackerel. That’s it. So the question is if salmon production is ecologically sustainable.”
The invasion of the South Pacific by the world’s supertrawlers made the need for binding quotas all the more pressing. But the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO) has only been able to set voluntary quotas so far. Their Chief Scientific Officer Andrew Penney says : “The scientific advice that we have given is if the participants in this fishery genuinely want to start rebuilding the stock, and if they have any ambition to get the stock back up towards the sorts of levels that can produce a million ton catch, then our advice is that the catches should be less than 390,000 tonnes.”
At a conference in January, this target commitment was not met. And even the arguably inadequate commitments that were made will never be mandatory until the convention is ratified, and that requires the signature of Chile and/or Peru. A top official in Chile’s fisheries ministry said this would happen: “It is very likely that Chile will ratify during the next months, and Peru also said that they are in a position to ratify the Convention. As a consequence, conservation measures that are established for jack mackerel, or for other fish, will be mandatory measures and binding.”
Eduardo TarifeÃƒÆ’±o, President of the Chilean Society of Marine Sciences, is in favour of a moratorium of at least five years. What does he think will happen if factory trawlers carry on removing up to 600,000 tonnes a year? “Absolute crisis. Jack mackerel would disappear. It would have no time to recover. The real concern is that jack mackerel is a relatively straightforward fish to manage. We know where the fish are, we know who’s fishing for them, we know who’s taking the fish out of the fishery – and we have some of the world’s best managers and negotiators overseeing the fishery. So if we can’t save this fishery in 2012, then what hope is there for saving other fish around the world?”
In San Antonio, south of Valparaiso, jack mackerel was part of the staple diet. Not any more. As a local fish eller explains: “Long ago jack mackerel was all around the rocks here and we just caught it. Now there is nothing left. Nothing to eat down there. We have eaten everything. My son, he won’t have anything to eat. By the time he’s twenty-one, there won’t be any fish for him to eat.”
Marine Biologist Patricia Majluf paints a broader picture: “If we go on like this, we won’t have fish for much longer. The main fish we like to eat – what’s called the table fish – it’s predicted that perhaps we’ll have for about thirty, forty more years given the state of the rate of decline for many of these stocks. How will this affect the global oceans we don’t know.”
Meanwhile, there’s still no international law on the South Pacific’s last frontier.
Mort Rosenblum and Mar Cabra of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) have publishedan article on the issues raised in this film: ‘Free-for-all’ decimates fish stocks in the southern Pacific, and there is another from the ICIJ – ‘Lords of the Fish’ – about the Chilean families who control huge fishing quotas.
The Pelagic Freezer-trawler Association (PFA), which represents the interests of 9 European pelagic freezer-trawler companies on an international level, has been active in the South Pacific Ocean jack mackerel fishery.
The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation was set up to establish binding quotas, but has so far failed.
Duncan Currie, of theDeep Sea Conservation Coalition, represents a coalition of ecology groups campaigning against the industrial fleets in the South Pacific and working to protect cold-water corals and vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems.
Illegal-fishing.infoprovides background information on the key issues in the debate around illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
Greenpeace Australia-Pacific has a campaign on Oceans in Crisis.