Fishing feud at the end of the world divides US and UK over Russia

MIAMI (AP) — This is one of the world’s top-notch wild-caught fish, sold for $32 a pound at Whole Foods and served as a meaty fillet on menus at upscale eateries across America. Is.

But Russia’s interruption of long-standing conservation efforts, resulting in a unilateral rejection of a catch limit for Chilean sea bass in a protected area off the coast of South America, has triggered a battle for fish in the bottom of the world, which Divides longtime allies, the governments of the US and UK.

The diplomatic dispute, which had not been previously reported, intensified after Britain quietly this spring issued fish licenses for sea bass off the coast of South Georgia, a remote, uninhabited area some 1,400 kilometers east of the Falkland Islands. UK-controlled island.

As a result, for the first time since governments came together 40 years ago to protect marine life near the South Pole, deep-sea fishing for sharp-toothed fish has gone ahead without limits from a 26-member commission this season. Used to be. Conservation of Antarctic Marine Life Resources or CCAMLR.

The move essentially overnight turned one of the world’s best-managed fisheries into an outer ocean the size of France – at least in the eyes of US officials threatening to restrict UK imports from the region.

“In a world beset by conflict, the UK is playing a risky game,” said Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK, adding that the history of Antarctic conservation is one of peaceful cooperation for the common good of humanity. Russia’s persistent desire to abuse the process cannot excuse unilateral action by other members. We are confident that countries that have previously imported South Georgia toothfish will no longer accept an unregulated fisheries.”

For decades, fisheries near South Georgia were a poster child for international fisheries cooperation, which brought together sometimes adversarial powers such as Russia, China and the US to create a free-flowing fishery from overfishing the cold, crystal blue Southern Ocean. to be saved from. Seen on high seas.

Last year, when tensions were rising with the West over Ukraine, Russia took the unprecedented step of rejecting toothfish catch limits proposed by CCAMLR scientists. The move was akin to a unilateral veto due to rules that are common to many international fisheries treaties, which require all decisions to be made by unanimous agreement.

But critics say the UK’s response – issuing a license without a CCAMLR-approved catch limit – is illegal under the commission’s rules and undermines the Antarctica Treaty established during the Cold War to isolate the continent as a scientific preserve. Is. According to correspondence between US fisheries managers and members of Congress seen by the Associated Press, US officials have also told their UK counterparts privately that they will prohibit the importation of any toothfish caught near South Georgia.

The fight underscores how Russia’s attempts to undermine the West have spread to obscure forums usually shunned by geopolitical strife. It also risks reviving Britain’s tensions with Argentina, which invaded South Georgia in 1982 as part of its war with the UK over the Falkland Islands.

But the results couldn’t be more consequential: With fish stocks worldwide declining due to overfishing, consumers are demanding more transparency about where the files on their plates are sourced. Central to that effort is rules-based international fisheries management on environmentally sensitive areas such as the open ocean and polar regions.

“It sets a dangerous precedent,” said Evan Bloom, who led the US delegation to the CCAMLR for 15 years, until his retirement from the State Department in 2020.

“What the Russians did clearly violate the spirit of science-based fisheries management,” said Bloom, who is now an expert on polar issues at the Wilson Center in Washington. “But that doesn’t mean the UK can act unilaterally.”

Three of the four UK-authorized vessels to fish near South Georgia starting May 1 belong to the British-Norwegian company Argos Frynes, which pioneered techniques that dramatically reduced seabird mortality in the South Atlantic .

One of its customers is New York-based Mark Foods, the largest U.S. supplier of sea bass, which is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, the industry’s gold standard for sustainability.

CEO Barry Markman declined an interview request, but said his company would not import any products deemed illegal by US officials.

“We are working closely with US officials to address this situation in an appropriate manner,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Chilean seabass — the commercial name for Patagonia toothfish from South Georgia — is sold at both Whole Foods and Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, which operate the fine dining chains of Eddie Wee and The Capital Grille. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

An official in the government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which issued the license in coordination with the UK Foreign Office, said it took action so as not to give in to a barrierist strategy by Russia that it does not expect ever to. will also expire. soon.

The fishery is one of the best managed in the world, with the catch limits set by South Georgia even below the quota recommended by the CCAMLR. In addition, all vessels authorized to fish near the island have observers on board and tamper-proof electronic surveillance equipment.

Officials say closing the fishery would take valuable resources away from research and monitoring because about 70% of the island chain’s budget comes from license sales.

They show that the toothfish population – a bottom-dwelling species capable of living up to 50 years – nearly collapsed in the 1990s from poachers drawn to the high prices paid for bottom-dwelling fish. Which can weigh more than 200 pounds. However, thanks to the multinational efforts of CCAMLR, the species has bounced back.

“The solution is not ideal, but it is in the best interest of the fisheries,” said the official, who did not wish to be identified.

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Follow Goodman at @APJoshGoodman

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This story was supported by funds from the Walton Family Foundation. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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