Fishing feud at world’s end divides US and UK over Russia

MIAMI – It’s one of the world’s most sought-after wild-caught fish, selling for $32 a pound at Whole Foods and served as meaty fillets on the menus of upscale restaurants across the United States.

Ocean-fishing-antarctic fish fight

Chilean sea bass fillets caught near the UK-controlled island of South Georgia go on sale at a Whole Foods market in Cleveland, Ohio, last week. Joshua Goodman/Associated Press

But Russia’s obstruction of longstanding conservation efforts, leading to a unilateral rejection of catch limits for Chilean sea bass in a protected region near Antarctica, has sparked a battle of fish at the bottom of the world, which divides longtime allies, the American and British governments. .

The previously unreported diplomatic row escalated after the UK quietly issued licenses this spring to fish for bass off the coast of South Georgia, a remote and uninhabited controlled island. by the United Kingdom about 1,400 kilometers east of the Falkland Islands.

As a result, for the first time since governments banded together 40 years ago to protect marine life near the South Pole, deep-sea fishing for sharptooth fish continues this season with no catch limits on the part of the 26-member Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources or CCAMLR.

The move essentially transformed one of the world’s best-managed fisheries overnight into an outlaw expanse of ocean the size of France — at least in the eyes of US officials threatening to ban imports. Britons in the region.

“In a conflict-ridden world, the UK is playing a risky game,” said Will McCallum, oceans manager at Greenpeace UK. “The history of Antarctic protection is one of peaceful cooperation for the common good of mankind. Russia’s continued willingness to abuse the process cannot excuse unilateral action by other Members. We are convinced that countries that previously imported toothfish from South Georgia will not accept catches from what is now an unregulated fishery.

For decades, the fishery near South Georgia has been a poster child for international fisheries cooperation, which has brought together sometimes conflicting powers like Russia, China and the United States to protect the Southern Ocean cold and crystal blue of the free-for-all fishing genre. seen on the high seas.

Last year, as tensions with the West rose over Ukraine, Russia took the unprecedented step of rejecting toothfish catch limits proposed by Antarctic Commission scientists. This decision amounted to a unilateral veto due to the rules, common to many international fishing pacts, which require that all decisions be taken unanimously.

But critics say the UK’s response – issuing licenses with no CCAMLR-approved catch limits – is illegal under the commission’s rules and undermines the Antarctic treaty established during the Cold War that has made contains a scientific reserve. US officials have also privately told their British counterparts that they are likely to ban imports of any toothfish caught near South Georgia, according to correspondence between US fisheries officials and members of Congress seen by The Associated Press. .

The struggle underscores the extent to which Russia’s attempts to undermine the West have extended to even obscure forums normally remote from geopolitical confrontations. It also risks reigniting tensions between Britain and Argentina, which invaded South Georgia in 1982 as part of its war with Britain over the Falkland Islands.

But the result couldn’t be more consequential: With global fish stocks declining due to overfishing, consumers are demanding greater transparency about the origin of the fillets on their plates. At the heart of this effort is rules-based international fisheries management on the high seas and in environmentally sensitive areas like the polar regions.

“This sets a dangerous precedent,” said Evan Bloom, who for 15 years, until his retirement from the State Department in 2020, led the US delegation to CCAMLR.

“What the Russians did clearly violates the spirit of scientific fisheries management,” added Bloom, who is now a polar issues expert at the Wilson Center in Washington. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean the UK can act unilaterally.”

Three of the four vessels allowed by the UK to fish near South Georgia from May 1 belong to Argos Froyanes, an Anglo-Norwegian company which pioneered techniques credited with dramatically reducing seabird mortality. sea ​​in the South Atlantic.

One of its customers is New York-based Mark Foods, the largest US supplier of sea bass certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, the industry benchmark for sustainability.

CEO Barry Markman declined a request for an interview, but said his company would not import any products deemed illegal by US authorities.

“We have been working cooperatively with U.S. officials to resolve this situation favorably,” he wrote in an email.

Chilean seabass – the trade name for Patagonian toothfish – from South Georgia is sold by both Whole Foods and Orlando’s Darden restaurants, which operate gourmet chains Eddie V’s and The Capital Grille. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

An official with the government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which issued the licenses in coordination with the UK Foreign Office, said it had taken steps not to give in to the obstructionist tactics of the Russia which it says will not end at any time. soon.

The fishery is one of the best managed in the world, with catch limits set by South Georgia even below the quota recommended by the Antarctic Commission. In addition, all vessels licensed to fish near the island have observers and tamper-proof electronic monitoring equipment on board.

Officials say closing the fishery would have taken away valuable resources from research and monitoring, as around 70% of the island chain’s budget comes from license sales.

They point out that the population of toothfish – a bottom-dwelling species capable of living up to 50 years – nearly collapsed in the days leading up to CCAMLR due to poachers, many of them from the former Soviet Union, attracted by the high prices paid for the fish, which can weigh over 200 pounds. However, thanks in part to the multinational efforts of the commission, the species has rebounded.

But US officials take a dim view of UK actions.

Janet Coit, a senior National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official, wrote in an April 25 letter obtained by the AP that without approved protections, any fishing near South Georgia would be “legally legal.” questionable” and would have “serious implications”. for the Antarctic Commission.

She also said any shipments of fish harvested from what is known as Subarea 48.3 would likely be barred from entering the United States, a preliminary advice she said was shared with the UK government and the United States. US importers to guide their decision making.

“We recognize that fish from this subarea have accounted for a substantial percentage of toothfish imports,” according to the letter, which was sent to a bipartisan group of seven House members concerned about the impact of a ban on the seafood industry. “However, we are bound by our obligations under the CAMLR Convention, applicable conservation measures in effect and relevant US law.”

The financial hit to the seafood industry from any import bans could be significant.

Each year, the United States imports about 3 million pounds of MSC-certified toothfish from South Georgia, worth about $50 million. The loss of these imports cannot easily be compensated as the other four MSC-certified toothfish fisheries in the CCAMLR Convention Area – managed by Australia, France and the Falkland Islands – are fishing at or near capacity. Overall, about 15 percent of the over 12,000 metric tonnes of toothfish caught in the CCAMLR Convention Area come from South Georgia.

Under U.S. law, fishing conducted in a manner that disregards conservation measures, such as catch limits, adopted by international fishing organizations to which the U.S. is a party, is considered illegal. . Vessels that engage in such activities can be denied access to US ports and blacklisted under the Antarctic Commission.

Meanwhile, the UK has shown no signs of backing down. Even with no conservation measures in place, he insists he will continue to operate the fishery in the conservative way he always has, basing his decisions on quota and other guidelines offered by scientists from the commission.

“Russia has blatantly blocked agreed catch limits citing false scientific concerns not recognized by any other CCAMLR member,” the UK Foreign Office said in a statement. “The UK will continue to operate the toothfish fishery within the framework agreed by all CCAMLR members.”

This story was supported by funding from the Walton Family Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Post expires at 4:11am on Monday July 4th, 2022