Perspectives from a Fisheries Observer in the Ross Sea, Antarctica

Fisheries observer Ebol Rojas shares his perspective on the challenges faced by the toothfish fishery in the Southern Ocean

Setting gear for toothfish fishing (photo credit: Ebol Rojas)

Fisheries observers are courageous souls that work alongside fishermen on fishing vessels, sampling the catch and providing biological, ecological and economical data for fisheries managers. Southern Ocean fisheries, most of which fall in the jurisdiction of CCAMLR (the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources), bring two independent fisheries observers out on every registered fishing vessel. Because observers are not affiliated with the fishermen aboard the vessels, they are often viewed as a nuisance, tattletale or burden.  But observers remain the most reliable and effective way to collect fisheries data in the Southern Ocean.

Here, Ebol Rojas, a CCAMLR fisheries observer, shares his comments about the difficulties of observing and the challenges faced by the toothfish fishery, particularly in the Ross Sea, Antarctica where the fishing season usually spans from December to March (the austral summer).

Ebol Rojas – International fisheries observer

Observing in the Ross Sea

By Ebol Rojas

The Ross Sea is one of the most challenging environments for a fisheries observer because of the extreme weather conditions and all of our multiple responsibilities. We have to gather biological information for each fish, including weight, length, and stomach contents as well as taking out the otoliths (fish ear bones which researchers use to age the fish).  We also have to tag fish and recover tags from fish previously tagged. The complexity of the tasks set for these areas are incredible.

To help prevent bird bycatch (animals accidentally hooked during fishing), we have to monitor the gear, including the streamer line, checking the weights on the longline, and sinking speed. If the lines don’t sink fast enough (at least 0.3 meters per second), albatross go after the bait and get pulled to the bottom and drown.  A single fishing boat can get the Ross Sea season closed if it exceeds sea bird bycatch.

We also monitor the toothfish catches and the other fish or benthic bycatch species.  A total allowable catch (TAC) is set not only for toothfish, but also for bycatch species, such as rays, grenadiers, and invertebrates.  We must monitor this bycatch because the fishery is closed for the season once the boats reach the TAC.

We are also out on deck observing the sets to watch for any interaction with marine mammals and sea birds, and counting hooks at hauling time. All the while the outside temperature is about -35° Celsius Celsius (-31° Fahrenheit), and sampling in the factory is about -16°C (3.2°F). When the hull and deck are frozen, sampling is difficult, and dangerous.

Boat fishing in the far south (photo credit: Ebol Rojas)

The perils of pirate fishing

Per international recommendations and CCAMLR regulations, we also keep an eye out for suspected illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing (which accounts for 10-17 percent of the toothfish fishery). If we spot an IUU vessel, we collect visual evidence and report the boat. Often fisheries observers are able to deter IUU activities simply with their onboard presence.  I’ve also been able to gather a lot of information on IUU activities, including new fishing techniques, through interviews with former IUU fishermen (who often work onboard licensed boats).

While I think that some toothfish fisheries are well managed, the actions of IUU fleets in international waters could be disastrous.  Albatross populations are particularly at risk because IUU fishermen are likely not using mitigation measure to avoid catching them. The case of the Ross Sea is more difficult though, because while there are not so many birds at risk, in some areas I’ve identified an abundant presence of other important benthic species, such as stony corals, gorgonians, and sponges.  Many of these animals are thousands of years old and they come onboard entangled in the lines.  These areas duly identified should be subject to fishing closures and are reported to CCAMLR accordingly.

In addition to the bycatch risk, IUU fishing also threatens toothfish and their management.  The average weight of Antarctic toothfish caught in the Ross Sea is greater than 20 kg (44 lbs), so they are catching mostly adult toothfish. But the TAC harvested in each region is set with regards to the calculated biomass of the species, the age structure, and probably the extent of calculated IUU for the zone. Thus if the IUU calculations are inaccurate, management is compromised.

Toothfish fishing boat in the Southern Ocean (photo credit: Ebol Rojas)

Another problem is that in 2006, IUU vessels introduced new gear, such as gillnets (or drift nets), first west of the Ross Sea within Prydz Bay and then Banzare Bank.  More recently there has been evidence of IUU gillnet fishing within the Ross Sea (through lost gillnets found in the area).  Then in December of 2009, the FV Carmela was sighted fishing illegally in Ross Sea. This could be a big problem because scientists usually use longline gear to calculate the extent of IUU fishing for a CCAMLR region.  But now there are more than 10 fishing boats using gillnets which are able to catch about 10 tons of toothfish per day (according to some anonymous sources and supported with photographic evidence). This is five to ten times the amount of toothfish taken in the long-line fishery. The bias introduced to the model is impossible to estimate. The toothfish’s life history characteristics make them vulnerable to overfishing and also the bycatch in gillnets is substantial.

Fish trafficking

Another problem is the scarce regulation of the Catch Documentation Scheme (CDS). CCAMLR implemented the CDS to track toothfish export to try and ensure only legal fish were being sent to market. But the transshipments at sea and lack of mandatory labeling of each box or bag of toothfish product actually allow the leakage of IUU products into the legal marketing. As an example, a fishing boat without an observer onboard that’s fishing in international waters can receive IUU toothfish during illegal at-sea transshipments from other fishing boats, then mix them up with legally caught fish. Upon landing they can get a DCD (Dissostichus Catch Document) for both kind of fish and sell all the fish as legal. The same happens when they are transshipping fish at sea using generic boxes and bags (without the name of the ship, date, area) mixing the illegal fish with legally caught fish. This fish laundering is an issue that needs to be tackled for the stakeholders and was mentioned as a pitfall in the CCAMLR Performance Review scientists did in 2008.

Toothfish (photo credit: Ebol Rojas)

Strengthening the observer program

CCAMLR must implement more regulations to strengthen the system. A potential solution is a Transshipment Observer Program like those used by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATCC), Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), and the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT). These programs integrate the Observer Program with compliance monitoring, which is of vital importance.

A centralized observer program could give clarity to the whole system by deploying only neutral observers. Consider actual situations where fisheries observers, for example, from the Ivory Coast are supposed to be unbiased observers, but instead they are working as part of the crew.  Or situations where the observers receive bribes or are threatened for doing their job.  Developing countries need a lot of support from the international community because situations of harassment against observers are so severe.  I know of two observers who vanished in Angola while monitoring foreign boats.

Another problem is that developing countries often implement observer programs simply because they have to, but they don’t know how to do it. There are not standardizations in the training, equipment, definition of conflict of interest, protection against harassment and interference onboard. Even within regional fisheries management organizations, such as CCAMLR, there are several differences in the observer programs with regards to training, equipment, and at sea support depending on each country member.

The majority of the IUU fishing activities are tied to countries with limited monitoring systems, which are often not CCAMLR member countries. A more centralized observer program would take care of this problem by ensuring there’s a monitoring program for all countries. This would prevent the depredation of the toothfish fishery for the benefit of CCAMLR and toothfish stakeholders. Without these improvements in the observer program, along with the elimination of IUU fishing and protection of critical habitats, the sustainability of the toothfish fishery is at risk.

Ebol Rojas is a fisheries observer with 15 years of experience and more than 2,000 days at sea, many in the CCAMLR region monitoring toothfish and krill fisheries. He also works as a fisheries inspector.

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