It’s one of the world’s most sought-after wild-caught fish, selling for $32 a pound at Whole Foods and served as meaty fillets on high-end restaurant menus across the United States.
But Russia’s obstruction of longstanding conservation efforts, which culminated in a unilateral rejection of Chilean seabass catch limits in a protected region off the coast of South America, has sparked a battle of the fishes. at the end of the world, which divides long-time allies, the American and British governments.
The previously unreported diplomatic row escalated after the UK quietly issued licenses this spring to fish for bass off the coast of South Georgia, a remote and uninhabited controlled island. by the United Kingdom about 1,400 kilometers east of the Falkland Islands.
As a result, for the first time since governments banded together 40 years ago to protect marine life near the South Pole, deep-sea fishing for sharptoothfish continues this season with no catch limits on the part of the 26-member Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources or CCAMLR.
The move essentially transformed one of the world’s best-managed fisheries overnight into an outlaw expanse of ocean the size of France — at least in the eyes of U.S. officials threatening to ban imports. Britons in the region.
“In a conflict-ridden world, the UK is playing a risky game,” said Will McCallum, oceans manager at Greenpeace UK. “The history of Antarctic protection is one of peaceful cooperation for the common good of mankind. Russia’s continued willingness to abuse the process cannot excuse unilateral action by other Members. We are confident that countries that previously imported toothfish from South Georgia will not accept catches from what is now an unregulated fishery.
For decades, the fishery near South Georgia has been a poster child for international fisheries cooperation, which has brought together sometimes conflicting powers like Russia, China and the United States to protect the Southern Ocean cold and crystal blue of the free-for-all fishing genre. seen on the high seas.
Last year, as tensions with the West grew over Ukraine, Russia took the unprecedented step of rejecting toothfish catch limits proposed by CCAMLR scientists. This decision amounted to a unilateral veto due to the rules, common to many international fishing pacts, which require that all decisions be taken unanimously.
But critics say the UK’s response – issuing licenses with no CCAMLR-approved catch limits – is illegal under the commission’s rules and undermines the Antarctic treaty established during the Cold War to make the continent a scientific reserve. US officials have also privately told their British counterparts that they are likely to ban imports of any toothfish caught near South Georgia, according to correspondence between US fisheries officials and members of Congress seen by The Associated Press. .
The struggle underscores the extent to which Russia’s attempts to undermine the West have extended to even obscure forums normally remote from geopolitical confrontations. It also risks reigniting tensions between Britain and Argentina, which invaded South Georgia in 1982 as part of its war with Britain over the Falkland Islands.
But the result couldn’t be more consequential: with global fish stocks declining due to overfishing, consumers are demanding greater transparency about the origin of the fillets on their plates. At the heart of this effort is rules-based international fisheries management on the high seas and in environmentally sensitive areas like the polar regions.
“This sets a dangerous precedent,” said Evan Bloom, who for 15 years, until his retirement from the State Department in 2020, led the US delegation to CCAMLR.
“What the Russians did clearly violates the spirit of scientific fisheries management,” added Bloom, who is now a polar issues expert at the Wilson Center in Washington. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean the UK can act unilaterally.”
Three of the four vessels allowed by the UK to fish near South Georgia from May 1 belong to Argos Froyanes, an Anglo-Norwegian company which pioneered techniques credited with dramatically reducing seabird mortality. sea in the South Atlantic.
One of its customers is New York-based Mark Foods, the largest US supplier of sea bass certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, the industry benchmark for sustainability.
CEO Barry Markman declined a request for an interview but said his company would not import any products deemed illegal by US authorities.
“We have been working cooperatively with U.S. officials to resolve this situation favorably,” he wrote in an email.
Chilean sea bass – the trade name for Patagonian toothfish – from South Georgia is sold by both Whole Foods and Orlando’s Darden restaurants, which operate gourmet chains Eddie V’s and The Capital Grille. Neither company responded to a request for comment.
An official with the government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which issued the licenses in coordination with the UK Foreign Office, said it had taken steps not to give in to the stonewalling tactics of the Russia which it says will not end at any time. soon.
The fishery is one of the best managed in the world, with catch limits set by South Georgia being even lower than the quota recommended by CCAMLR. In addition, all vessels licensed to fish near the island have observers and tamper-proof electronic monitoring equipment on board.
Officials say closing the fishery would have taken away valuable resources from research and monitoring, as around 70% of the island chain’s budget comes from license sales.
They point out that the population of toothfish – a bottom-dwelling species capable of living up to 50 years – nearly collapsed in the 1990s due to poachers attracted by the high prices paid for groundfish, which can weigh more. of 200 lbs. However, thanks in part to the multinational efforts of CCAMLR, the species has rebounded.
“The solution is not ideal but it is in the best interest of the fishery,” according to the official who declined to be identified by name.
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