TRADE in black fish – marine species caught illegally and not reported to regulators – costs up to £15 billion ($23bn) in global losses each year, a conservation group has estimated.
Oceana, a Washington-based organisation, looked at the records of fish catches by country as reported to the United Nations, then compared those statistics to seafood sales in various world markets.
When these numbers didn’t match up, the group was able to use the disparity to estimate the amount lost through the taking of “black fish”, more widely described as fish piracy.
The report said illegal trade could account for up to 25 million tonnes of seafood, a minimum of 20 per cent of seafood traded worldwide.
Illegal fishing targets some of the most expensive species, including shrimp, fugu pufferfish, lobster, abalone and sea urchin. Penalties are often a fraction of potential profit, the report found. In one US case, an illegal catch worth up to £640,000 brought a £2,200 penalty.
The report estimated that the illegal trade threatens 260 million jobs dependant on marine fisheries worldwide.
For example, the shark-fin trade in Hong Kong suggests that three to four times more sharks are being killed than official reports say, with up to £305 million worth of shark fins sold.
Fishermen who comply with legal standards can also lose business when they sell in the same market as illegal operators who don’t follow environmental or sanitary standards, the report found.
In addition, adults and children have been trafficked into service on illegal fishing ships, to cut costs and boost profits, the report said.
Illegally caught Russian sockeye salmon is estimated to be 60 per cent to 90 per cent above reported levels, a loss of up to $74m (£47.5m), according to Oceana.
Annual black market sales of bluefin tuna may reach $4 billion (£2.57bn), with the amount of illegally caught fish five to ten times higher than the official catch, the report said.
“I don’t think people think of fish as valuable, and when they think of crime, I don’t think they think about seafood,” Oceana senior scientist Margot Stiles said. “But behind closed doors and out at sea, there’s all this money made by stealing fish.”
In the past, governments have stepped up enforcement to combat the problem, but that approach was limited.
Ms Stiles suggested a two-part solution: first, cut back government fishing subsidies, which ultimately pay for some of the illegal catch, and increase seafood tracking from its source to the consumer.
Using the same technology as in the package delivery industry, some large seafood dealers, markets and restaurants are already tracking fish.
Scotland’s worst case of illegal fishing was revealed last year, after 17 skippers and a fish processing company were fined almost £1 million for their part in a black fish scam.
The fishermen landed mackerel and herring in Shetland worth more than the £47.5 million they were allowed under European Union quotas.
The problem is global. The Falklands Islands warned in March that the refusal of Argentine authorities to co-operate on fisheries protection with the capital Port Stanley meant that a huge Chinese fleet of vessels was operating illegally between their waters, catching vast quantities of squid.