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Patagonian Toothfish

The Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) can reach six and a half feet in length and weigh more than 250 pounds. It feeds largely on squid and prawns and, in turn, is a large part of the fish diet for sperm whales and elephant seals. The two known species of toothfish, the Antarctic (D. mawsoni) and the Patagonian, as with all the cod icefishes (Nototheniidae), are found in waters of the Southern Hemisphere: the Patagonian in the sub-Antarctic and southern parts of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans on seamounts and continental shelves; and the Antarctic, as the name suggests, in the colder waters around the Antarctic continent.

In the U.S., the Patagonian toothfish is typically marketed as the Chilean sea bass; in other countries it is known under a variety of names such as mero or black hake. The Patagonian toothfish can live up to 40 years and has a long breeding cycle, taking anywhere from eight to ten years to reach sexual maturity. As with all such slowly maturing species, it has a low reproductive rate making it especially vulnerable to exploitation. Patagonian toothfish are caught by longlining, a fishing technique that deploys lines--some as long as 80 miles--which are loaded with hundreds to many thousands of baited hooks.

Protection and management of most Patagonian toothfish populations are regulated by the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Signatories to the Convention are involved in fishing and/or research in the Southern Ocean and include the U.S., the European Union, Norway, Australia, Chile, Spain, Japan, and many others. A regulatory Commission coordinates and oversees activities, with the goal of ensuring that members' obligations are fulfilled as required under the Convention.

The Problem

  • High prices spurred by increasing demand as a seafood menu item--primarily for U.S. and Japanese markets--has led in the past several years to the rapid development of fisheries for the Patagonian toothfish. This includes a high level of illegal, unreported or otherwise unregulated fishing which, according to CCAMLR's regulatory Commission and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), among others, is severely depleting toothfish populations. Illegally-harvested toothfish is esti-mated to make up over half the total international trade in the species.
  • The impacts of the toothfish fisheries, as with various longlining operations, include the often substan-tial mortality of non-target species. Of particular concern is the bycatch of seabirds--notably albatrosses and petrels--which are caught and then drowned when they feed on the baited longline hooks. Longlining operations have been identified as the single most important factor in the current global decline of albatross populations. This includes most of the albatross species (e.g., wandering, black-browed, sooty) inhabiting the Southern Ocean.

The Causes

  • With many of the world's traditional fishing grounds in a perilous state from overfishing, large industrial fleets have been moving into the Southern Ocean in search of profits. Following them are the pirate fisheries, usually in boats that are flying flags of convenience (FOC)--i.e., that are registered with countries (e.g., Belize, Honduras, and Equatorial Guinea) that can be paid to ignore international fishing regulations. Other coun-tries are implicated as well. Many of the FOC boats are owned by fishing companies based in countries (e.g., Chile and Spain) which have obligations to the relevant regional and international fishery agree-ments-- such as under CCAMLR--yet allow these companies to operate their FOC boats unhindered.
  • Though various methods are now available to markedly reduce seabird bycatch in longlines, it is generally assumed that illegal and unregulated fishing operations pay minimum attention to such details. The bycatch of seabirds in the Southern Ocean by this fishery component is, thus, likely quite high, but no quantitative data exist. CCAMLR--unique among fisheries agreements in that it requires the considera-tion of fishery impacts on an entire ecosystem--now has regulations in place designed to reduce seabird mortality. Though this has reduced the bycatch, compliance by the legal fisheries in the CCAMLR area may still be substantially less than 100%.

The Context

  • Despite the various measures implemented by CCAMLR since 1996, the high levels of illegal and unregulated toothfish fishing have continued. Faced with this general failure to protect toothfish, the Commission adopted a Catch Documentation Scheme in late 1999 which requires that all landings, shipment, and importation of toothfish into the 23 CCAMLR member countries be accompanied by a catch-tracking document. Its purpose will be to monitor international trade, identify the origins of the shipments, and provide at least some basis for determining if toothfish imports were caught consistent with CCAMLR requirements.
  • Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fisheries--involving such tactics as under- or misreporting, poaching, the use of unauthorized fishing gear, or flying flags of convenience--will continue to pose a substantial threat to many fisheries worldwide. Pirate fishing boats, for example, have been moving into the waters of those maritime nations not able to effectively police their coastal and offshore areas.
  • The United Nations, via the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), is in the beginning stages of developing an international plan of action to combat IUU fishing. It is hoped that this plan will be agreed and acted upon by the international community over the coming years.However, the United Nations' Fish Stocks Agreement has recently (December 2001) come into force and should substantially increase the pressure on nation states to control the activities of their fishing fleets.

Further Reading

International Southern Ocean Longline Fishery Information Clearing House (ISOFISH). 1999. The Chilean Fishing Industry: Its Involvement in and Connections to the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Exploitation of Patagonian Toothfish in the Southern Ocean. ISOFISH Occasional Report No. 2.

Lack, M. and Sant, G. 2001. Patagonian Toothfish: Are Conservation and Trade Measures Working? Traffic Bulletin 19(1). Traffic International, Cambridge, UK.

Robertson, G. and Gales, R. (eds.) 1998. Albatross: Biology and Conservation. Surrey Beatty & Sons: Chipping Norton, Australia.

Papers and the Report of the Expert Consultation on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, Sydney, Australia, 15-19 May 2000.