Jack mackerel stocks in the southern Pacific ocean have declined from about 30 million tonnes to less than 3 million in 20 years.

Jack mackerel stocks in the southern Pacific ocean have declined from about 30 million tonnes to less than 3 million in 20 years. Photo: Eduardo Sorensen/Oceana

TALCAHUANO, Chile - Eric Pineda, a dock agent in this old port south of Santiago, peered deep into the Achernar's hold at a measly 10 tonnes of jack mackerel - the catch after four days in waters once so rich they filled the 17-metre fishing boat in a few hours. Pineda, like everyone here, grew up with the bony, bronze-hued fish they call jurel, which roams in schools in the southern Pacific.

"It's going fast," he said. "We've got to fish harder before it's all gone." Asked what he would leave his son, he shrugged: "He'll have to find something else."

Jack mackerel, rich in oily protein, is manna to a hungry planet, a staple in Africa. Elsewhere, people eat it unaware that much of it is reduced to feed for aquaculture and pigs. It can take more than five kilograms of jack mackerel to raise a single kilogram of farmed salmon.

A small catch of jack mackerel aboard the Achernar.

A small catch of jack mackerel aboard the Achernar. Photo: Mort Rosenblum

Stocks have dropped from an estimated 30 million tonnes to less than a tenth of that in two decades. The world's largest trawlers, after depleting other oceans, now head south towards the edge of Antarctica to compete for what is left.

An eight-country investigation of the fishing industry in the southern Pacific by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists shows how the fate of the jack mackerel may foretell the progressive collapse of fish stocks in all oceans.

In turn, the fate of this one fish reflects a bigger picture: decades of unchecked global fishing pushed by geopolitical rivalry, greed, corruption, mismanagement and public indifference. Daniel Pauly, an eminent University of British Columbia oceanographer, sees jack mackerel in the southern Pacific as an alarming indicator. "This is the last of the buffaloes," he said. "When they're gone, everything will be gone."

Martin Gotje tracks fishing fleets.

Martin Gotje tracks fishing fleets. Photo: Mort Rosenblum

Delegates from at least 20 countries will gather today in the Chilean capital Santiago for an annual meeting to seek ways to curb the plunder.

The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation was formed in 2006, at the initiative of Australia and New Zealand along with Chile. Its purpose was to protect fish, particularly jack mackerel. But it took almost four years for 14 countries to adopt 45 interim articles aimed at doing that. Only six countries have ratified the agreement.

Meanwhile, industrial fleets bound only by voluntary restraints compete in what amounts to a free-for-all in no-man's-water at the bottom of the world. From 2006 to 2011, scientists estimate, jack mackerel stocks declined 63 per cent.

Jack mackerel sold in Valparaiso in Chile.

Jack mackerel sold in Valparaiso in Chile. Photo: Instituto de Fomento

The fisheries convention needs eight signatures to be binding, including one South American coastal state. Chile - prominent in getting the group together - has yet to ratify.

The South Pacific fisheries organisation decided at the outset that it would assign future yearly quotas for member countries based on the total annual tonnage of vessels each deployed from 2007 to 2009.

To stake claims, fleets hurried south. Chinese trawlers arrived en masse, among others from Asia, Europe and Latin America.

One newcomer was at the time the biggest fishing vessel afloat, the 14,000-tonne Atlantic Dawn, built for Irish owners. Parlevliet & Van der Plas of the Netherlands bought it, renaming it the Annelies Ilena. Such "super-trawlers" chase jack mackerel with nets measuring up to 25 metres by 80 metres at the opening. When they are hauled in, fish are pulled into the hold by suction tubes, like giant vacuum cleaners.

Gerard van Balsfoort, president of the Netherlands-based Pelagic Freezer-Trawler Association, which represents nine companies and 25 vessels flagged by states in the European Union, confirmed the obvious: the Dutch, like others, went to mark out territory.

"It was one of the few areas where still you could get free entry," he said.

"It looked as though too many vessels would head south, but there was no choice. If you were too late in your decision to go there, they could have closed the gate."

By 2010, the South Pacific fisheries organisation counted 75 vessels fishing in its region.

The mackerel rush also attracted the leading commercial player, Pacific Andes International Holdings: PacAndes. The company, based in Hong Kong, spent $100 million in 2008 to rebuild a nearly 230-metre, 50,000-tonne oil tanker into a floating factory called the Lafayette.

The Russian-flagged Lafayette sucks fish from attendant trawlers with a giant hose and freezes them in blocks. Refrigerated vessels - reefers - carry these to distant ports. The Lafayette alone has the technical capacity to process 547,000 tonnes a year, if it operated every day.

In September 2011, scientists for the fisheries organisation concluded that an annual catch beyond 520,000 tonnes could further deplete jack mackerel stocks.

One of those scientists, Cristian Canales of the Chilean fisheries research centre, Instituto de Fomento Pesquero, said a safer limit would be 250,000 tonnes. Some dissenting experts say the only way to restore the fishery is to impose a total ban for five years.

Trachurus murphyi, Chilean jack mackerel, are fished west of Chile and Peru, along a 6500-kilometre coastline, to about 120 degrees longitude, halfway to New Zealand. They range widely in open waters, eating plankton and small organisms, and are food for bigger fish.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says global fishing fleets are 2.5 times larger than needed. That estimate was based on a 1998 report; since then, fleets have expanded.

Experts say much of that overcapacity has been driven by government subsidies, particularly in Europe and Asia. A landmark report by Rashid Sumaila, along with Pauly and others at the University of British Columbia, estimated total global subsidies in 2003 - the latest available data - at $US25 billion to $US29 billion.

From 15 to 30 per cent of the subsidies went towards paying for ships' fuel, while a further 60 per cent went to increase size and upgrade equipment. The study calculated China's subsidies at $US4.14 billion and Russia's at $US1.48 billion.

In the southern Pacific, after years of aggressive fishing, industrial fleets find fewer and fewer jack mackerel. EU-flagged vessels collectively caught more than 111,000 tonnes of jack mackerel in 2009; the next year, the ships hauled in only 60 per cent of that; by last year, vessels reported just 2261 tonnes.

Looking back, van Balsfoort said vessels fished too hard at a time when jack mackerel stocks were on a natural downward cycle. "There was way too big an effort in too short a time," he said. "The entire fleet," including the Pelagic Freezer-Trawler Association, "has to be blamed for it."

PacAndes' 50,000-gross-tonne flagship, the Lafayette, is registered to Investment Company Kredo in Moscow and flies a Russian flag. Kredo - via four other subsidiaries - belongs to China Fishery Group in Singapore which, in turn, is registered in the Cayman Islands.

China Fishery belongs to Pacific Andes International Holdings, based in Hong Kong but under yet another holding company registered in Bermuda.

PacAndes, which is publicly traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange, reports more than 100 subsidiaries under its various branches, but a nearly impenetrable global network includes many more affiliates.

Ng Joo Siang, 52, a jovial Louisiana State University graduate who is hooked on golf, runs PacAndes like the family business it is, despite its public listing.

His Malaysian Chinese father moved the family to Hong Kong and started a seafood business in 1986. When the executive board meets in its no-frills conference room overlooking the harbour, the father's portrait gazes down at his widow, who is chairwoman, his three sons and a daughter.

"My father told me the oceans were limitless," Ng said in an interview, "but that was a false signal. We don't want to damage the resources, to be blamed for damage. I don't think our shareholders would like it. I don't think our children would like it very much."

But he snorted when asked about the limit of 520,000 tonnes for jack mackerel recommended by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation.

"Based on what, on this?" he replied, thrusting a moistened finger into the air as if checking the wind.

"There is no science," he said. "The SPRFMO has no science. How much money has Vanuatu or Chile or whoever put in to understand about fisheries?"

Chile, in fact, spent $US10.5 million in 2011 on Instituto de Fomento Pesquero - one quarter of its fisheries budget. In the intrigues of fish politics, PacAndes sides with Peru, where it operates 32 vessels and has a share of the anchoveta quota, an anchovy-sized sardine and crucial source of fishmeal for aquaculture.

The jack mackerel crisis has hit hardest in Chile, where industry leaders and the authorities admit to serious excesses during the unregulated years in what they call "the Olympic race''.

In 1995 alone, Chileans fished more than 4 million tonnes. That is eight times the amount SPRFMO scientists said could be landed in a sustainable way in 2012. From 2000 to 2010, Chile landed 72 per cent of all jack mackerel in the southern Pacific.

"The slaughter was tremendous, unbelievable," said Juan Vilches, who scouts fish for a large company. "No one had any idea of limits," he added. "Hundreds of tonnes were thrown overboard if nets came up too full for the hold. Boats came in so loaded that fish were squashed, their blood so hot it actually boiled."

Reporters and staff of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, working with the Chilean investigative journalism centre Ciper, traced how eight groups with a near monopoly had pressured the Chilean government to set quotas above scientific advice. Six of these groups are controlled by powerful families. And, together, the eight of them own rights to 87 per cent of Chile's jack mackerel catch.

Eduardo Tarifeno, a marine biologist at the University of Concepcion, said that Chile now had only sardines in relative abundance.

"We have no more jack mackerel or hake or anchoveta," he said. "Fisheries that produced a million or more tonnes a year have simply run out from overfishing by big companies."

He added: "If we don't save jack mackerel today, we won't be able to do it later. We need a total ban for at least five years."

Roberto Cesari, the European Union's chief envoy to the SPRFMO, which meets this week, said he expected ratification of its conditions only in 2013 - seven years into precipitous decline for jack mackerel.

The SPRFMO cut voluntary quotas 40 per cent for 2011, but China, among others, opted out. Beijing later agreed to reduce by 30 per cent.

Cesari said the European Union tried to exert pressure, but its clout was limited. China and Russia, he noted, "are giants".

Bill Mansfield, a New Zealand international lawyer who has chaired the SPRFMO since 2006, said voluntary restraints had not protected fish stocks and it was time to put the convention into force. The Santiago meeting must limit the 2012 catch to 390,000 tonnes or less, he said.

Martini Gotje, a Dutch expatriate who was a crew member aboard the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior when French agents sank it in Auckland harbour in 1985, works from the idyllic island of Waiheke, near Auckland. Like other activists, he mostly faults overcapacity - legal and yet devastating.

The first priority, he said, should be saving fish, not the fishing industry. "The Lafayette raised the game to an incredible level, and Holland is very much involved," he said. "There are way too many boats, just simply way too many boats."

In the end, argues Daniel Pauly, the oceanographer, this global trend will not change unless a major power - the European Union or the United States - takes firm action. "Somebody has to take the high ground," he said, "and others will follow.".

This article was supported by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, an independent network of investigative reporters who collaborate on cross-border stories. It is a project of the Centre for Public Integrity, a non-profit investigative news organisation. Additional reporting by Milagros Salazar (Peru), Juan Pablo Figueroa Lasch (Chile) and Irene Jay Liu (Hong Kong).

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