Europe’s Appetite for Seafood Propels Illegal Trade
Fish is now the most traded animal commodity on the planet, with about 100 million tons of wild and farmed fish sold each year. Europe has suddenly become the world’s largest market for fish, worth more than 14 billion euros, or about $22 billion a year. Europe’s appetite has grown as its native fish stocks have shrunk so that Europe now needs to import 60 percent of fish sold in the region, according to the European Union.
In Europe, the imbalance between supply and demand has led to a thriving illegal trade. Some 50 percent of the fish sold in the European Union originates in developing nations, and much of it is laundered like contraband, caught and shipped illegally beyond the limits of government quotas or treaties. The smuggling operation is well financed and sophisticated, carried out by large-scale mechanized fishing fleets able to sweep up more fish than ever, chasing threatened stocks from ocean to ocean.
The European Commission estimates that more than 1.1 billion euros in illegal seafood, or $1.6 billion worth, enters Europe each year. The World Wide Fund for Nature contends that up to half the fish sold in Europe are illegally caught or imported. While some of the so-called “pirate fishing” is carried out by non-Western vessels far afield, European ships are also guilty, some of them operating close to home. An estimated 40 percent of cod caught in the Baltic Sea are illegal, said Mireille Thom, a spokeswoman for Joe Borg, the European Union’s commissioner of fisheries and maritime affairs.
“We know that it’s much too easy to land illegal fish in European ports, and we are really eager to block their access to European markets,” Ms. Thom said.
If cost is an indication, fish are poised to become Europe’s most precious contraband. Prices have doubled and tripled in response to surging demand, scarcity and recent fishing quotas imposed by the European Union in a desperate effort to save native species. In London, a kilogram of lowly cod, the traditional ingredient of fish and chips, now costs up to £30, or close to $60, up from £6 four years ago.
One is not surprised that China gets a look in here somewhere.
Tracing where the fish come from is nearly impossible, many experts say. Groups like Greenpeace and the Environmental Justice Foundation have documented a range of egregious and illegal fishing practices off West Africa.
Huge boats, owned by companies in China, South Korea and Europe, fly flags of convenience from other nations. They stay at sea for years at a time, fishing, fueling, changing crews and unloading their catches to refrigerated boats at sea, making international monitoring extremely difficult.
Even when permits and treaties make the fishing legal, it is not always sustainable. Many fleets go well beyond the bounds of their agreements in any case, generally with total impunity, studies, including some by Greenpeace and Environmental Justice, show.
“There’s a big competition out there with foreign vessels, especially from China,” said Moshwood Kuku, a fishmonger at Afikala Afrikane, a stall that specializes in African fish at Billingsgate. “Locals can only fish the coast.”