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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI researcher: Fish piracy a growing problem

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

KINGSTON, R.I. -- April 6, 2005 -- Although Captain Hook and Bluebeard are long gone, pirates still sail the high seas around the world. In addition to hijacking and stealing from other ships, some of today’s pirates plunder the oceans by illegally catching and selling finfish and shellfish, much of which unknowingly ends up on our dinner tables.

Controlling fish piracy is not a new concern, according to Jon G. Sutinen, professor of environmental and natural resource economics at the University of Rhode Island. As early as the 15th century, Scotland was policing its coastal fisheries. But in recent years the problem has grown considerably as regulations have increased, fish stocks have become depleted, and the value of some species has skyrocketed.

“Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing is happening over a large expanse of ocean by people who are highly mobile and whose chance of being caught is very small,” said Sutinen. “It’s incredibly difficult to keep violations under control, especially when Coast Guard resources have been drawn away by homeland security and drug interdiction efforts.”

Examples abound. Huge illegal trawlers travel the southern oceans in search of Patagonian toothfish – known in restaurants as Chilean sea bass – a species that grows and reproduces slowly. Abalone poaching in the Pacific Ocean is tied to international organized crime in Asia, as is the ornamental fish trade, which uses people on the edge of poverty to do the dirty work.

“I’m concerned there’s a simmering cauldron of violations we don’t even know about,” said the Kingston resident who has studied fisheries compliance and enforcement for more than two decades.

Studies conducted by Sutinen in the late 1980s and early 1990s found that millions of dollars of undersized lobsters were marketed annually along the coast of the northeastern U.S., and the region’s groundfish fishery exhibited a Wild West-like environment where the penchant among fishermen to violate regulations was great.

“Most fishermen are law abiding, and some are even altruistic and protective of the fishery. But for others, it depends on how well the system is working, and many believe it’s not working,” Sutinen said. “I’m convinced that here in New England it’s just a small number of fishermen who fish illegally. But those that do are opportunistic and often well organized. Some will sell their catch at the back door of the local tavern.”

Sutinen estimated that 15 years ago some six to nine percent of the fish caught in New England were caught illegally, and he fears that the level of illegal fishing may have grown since then. “Everything that puts pressures on fishermen to violate the law has increased: stricter regulations, deteriorating fish stocks, a strong market, and skepticism and anger over management practices.”

Sutinen said that heavy-handed, coercive enforcement measures, while necessary, are not the only way to strengthen compliance. Since fisheries enforcement is very expensive and enforcement capacity low, he recommends fishery managers do more “compliance building.”

“We need to do a better job of coming up with rules and regulations that the fishermen understand and accept,” he said. “We need to explain the basis for the decisions being made and marshal some degree of acceptance among the fishermen.”

Sutinen believes that giving fishermen “exclusive use rights” for a particular area or share of the allowed catch would go a long way toward encouraging compliance.

“Studies show that by giving them a greater stake in the fishery, they’re more willing to invest in it and protect it from being plundered,” he said. “Allocating use rights to a small group would work well – the fluke fishermen in Rhode Island are trying to implement this, for instance. By giving them some authority to manage the fishery themselves, they’ll do so in a way that best suits the fish, the fishermen and the state.”

Sutinen’s current research focuses on trying to understand why people comply with regulations. “If we can understand that, we can make some scientifically sound recommendations for strengthening compliance,” he said.