A diplomatic row has erupted between the UK and US over efforts to conserve a deep-sea fish species near Antarctica, as Russia obstructs attempts to set catch limits .
Last year, amid tensions with the west over Ukraine, Russia rejected catch limits for Patagonian toothfish – also known as Chilean seabass – set by a regulator in Fisheries, made up of 26 members, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
This spring, the UK responded by issuing licenses to four UK-flagged vessels to fish for the species off the coast of South Georgia, a remote and uninhabited island controlled by the UK, nearly 1 000 miles (1,600 km) east of the Falkland Islands.
US officials say the UK’s actions breach the commission’s rules, making the capture illegal. The row has also raised fears it threatens wider international cooperation on fisheries and risks reigniting tensions between Britain and Argentina, which invaded South Georgia in 1982 as part of its war with the UK over the Falklands.
It is the first time in 40 years since CCAMLR was established to protect Antarctic marine life that deep-sea fishing for Patagonian toothfish, one of the world’s most expensive wild fish, continues without no catch limit from the commission.
Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace, fears the UK’s actions could set a risky precedent in one of the world’s best managed fisheries.
The fishery has been touted as a positive example of international cooperation between powers such as Russia, China and the United States to protect the Southern Ocean from growing commercial interest in Antarctic krill – a key part of the marine ecosystem – and other marine resources.
McCallum said, “Russia’s willingness to abuse the process cannot excuse unilateral action by other members. We are concerned that the precedent created by the UK, acting in its national interest, could be used by other countries such as China, which builds krill fishing vessels.
US officials have privately told their British counterparts that their actions risked banning 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 line risks breaking within carefully negotiated limits for the fishery. “This sets a dangerous precedent,” Evan Bloom, who led the US delegation to CCAMLR until 2020, told AP.
“What the Russians did clearly violates the spirit of scientific fisheries management,” said Bloom, 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 licensed by the UK to fish near South Georgia are owned by Argos Froyanes, an Anglo-Norwegian company that pioneered techniques credited with dramatically reducing seabird mortality in the Atlantic South.
Barry Markman, CEO of one of Argos Froyanes’ customers, New York-based Mark Foods, the largest U.S. supplier of sea bass certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, said his company would not import any product deemed illegal by the Marine Stewardship Council. US authorities.
South Georgia Chilean Seabass is sold at Whole Foods and Darden restaurants in Orlando. Neither company responded to a request for comment from AP.
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 that he doesn’t expect to see an end anytime soon.
Prior to the establishment of CCAMLR, the population of Patagonian toothfish, a bottom-dwelling species living up to 50 years, had nearly collapsed due to poaching, but has recovered.
The financial hit to the seafood industry from any import ban could be significant, as US imports of MSC-certified fish are worth around $50m (£40m).
Under U.S. law, fishing in a manner that disregards conservation measures adopted by international fishing organizations to which the U.S. is a party — including catch limits — is considered illegal. Vessels engaging in such activities can be denied access to US ports and blacklisted under the Antarctic Commission.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “Russia has blatantly blocked agreed catch limits by citing false scientific concerns not recognized by any other CCAMLR member. The UK will continue to operate the toothfish fishery within the framework agreed by all CCAMLR Members.