Fishing talks at risk of failure

19:08, Jan 31 2013

An attempt in Auckland to save one of the world's last great fisheries is on the verge of failing, environmentalists claim.

International talks are trying to end a massive free-for-all fishing of jack mackerel in international waters between New Zealand and Chile.

Because the stock is unregulated, fleets of boats from South American countries, Russia, China, Korea, the European Union, the Faroe Islands and Vanuatu and the Cook Islands are chasing the fish.

Last year the New York Times revealed the plunder had sent the stock on the way to becoming "one of the most depleted major fish stocks" in the world.

It said aggressive fishing had seen jack mackerel stocks plunge in the past two decades from 30 million metric tons to less than three million.

A newly created South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO), chaired by Wellington international lawyer Bill Mansfield, is trying to bring order to the fishery at a week-long closed-door meeting in Auckland.

But Cath Wallace, co-chair of the Environment and Conservation Organisations, said the meeting was at an impasse and talks were expected to go late into tonight to get a deal.

"Some nations are reluctant to reduce their jack mackerel catches for the coming year despite perilously low levels of stock," she said.

Mansfield had been pleading with nations to stop, telling delegates that the world was watching what was happening.

Wallace said jack mackerel lived in the high seas beyond any national jurisdiction but also lived along the South American coast as a "straddling stock".

Wallace said it was the "race to fish" and greed.

Jack mackerel fish stocks, once the largest in the South Pacific, now face a classic "tragedy of the commons" future.

Vanuatu has a virtually open register that allows foreign vessels to operate in its name and is represented at the meeting by an Australian with links to a Greek fishing company with vessels registered in Vanuatu.

The Cook Islands has also allowed non-national vessels to register as its fleet, but they are not alone, with other countries also opening access in their quest to position for future catch allocations.

Last year Mansfield at the meeting that set up SPRFMO alerted the world to a rapidly worsening environmental and nutrition disaster.

He warned that what was happening to the stock was "of great significance for the food security and economic development of the countries of the region over the long term".

Mansfield urged member states to get the negotiated convention into force quickly, saying it was their duty.

"Regrettably, the world's fish stocks, and the marine ecosystems that support them, continue to be placed under severe and increasing pressure," he said.

"At the same time, the capacity of the world fishing fleets remains far greater than that which can be sustained by our fishery resources, resulting in ongoing over-fishing of many stocks."

The Chilean stock - which was found off New Zealand's east coast until recently and has now disappeared - is separate from the New Zealand jack mackerel stock, which may now have become one of the world's largest nearly untouched fishery.