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US, Russia team up to nab fish pirates on the high seas

Fish pirates are coming under fire as more countries band together to stop them from pilfering the world's oceans.

So called Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing accounts for a fifth of the global catch, according to the Global Ocean Commission, valued up to $25 billion a year.

Last month, at an Intergovernmental Consultative Committee meeting in Portland, Oregon, the U.S. and Russia signed a bilateral agreement to combat IUU fishing by coordinating multiple government agencies. The pact, years in the making, has strong support from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska regions as well as environmental groups.

That will mean a big break for Bering Sea king crab, a fishery being whacked by the pirates.

For decades, Alaska crabbers have competed against king crab illegally caught by Russian fleets. Direct losses are estimated at $600 million since 2000, according to an analysis by the Juneau-based McDowell Group. Pirated king crab totaled nearly 100 million pounds in 2013, or 40 percent of the world market.

Mark Gleason, executive director of the trade group Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, was thrilled with the U.S.-Russia agreement.

"The fact that there has been a formal acknowledgement between the U.S. and Russia that illegal fishing is a problem, and it is an issue that is worthy of cooperation between our two countries -- it is unprecedented and a very welcome change," Gleason said.

"If we've lost $600 million because of decreased ex-vessel prices, then obviously the fishing-dependent communities have also lost millions in taxes and landing revenues. So it's not just an issue that impacts crab harvesters. It hurts communities, the State of Alaska and frankly, it impacts the legal Russian producers because we all are competing in the same markets. There's a lot of pain to go around."

Indeed there is. According to a 2014 study in the journal Marine Policy called "Estimates of illegal and unreported fish in seafood imports to the USA," nearly 90 percent of U.S. seafood is imported, with as much as a third caught illegally or without proper documentation.

Among the worst violators:

• Some 40 percent of tuna imported to the U.S. from Thailand;

• Nearly 45 percent of pollock imports from China; and

• About 70 percent of salmon imports. (Likely caught in Russian waters but transshipped at sea and processed in China.)

The U.S. has been slow to impose IUU trade regulations that require things like seafood traceability and certificates of origin. The primary U.S. law to discourage imports of illegally caught fish is the Lacey Act, which is intended to stop imports and sales of products that "are extracted in violation of the source country's conservation provisions or international law."

But the Lacey Act does not include any proactive mechanisms for detecting illegal fish products as they enter the U.S. and can only be used to sanction violators after they've been caught.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-Russia Intergovernmental Committee will now begin developing a framework for implementation of the new IUU agreement to curtail pirate catches of crab, pollock, cod, salmon and other species.

An international Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) that would cut off markets from fish pirates is languishing in Congress after gaining Senate approval a year ago. The measure would strengthen port inspections and toughen standards for foreign flagged vessels to prevent illegal products from entering world markets. And in an IUU victory last week, a Spanish court doled out three years in jail and $17 million in fines to Chilean toothfish pirates, who attempted to scuttle their falsely flagged boat, the F/V Thunder.

Salmon catch No. 2 all time

This year's Alaska salmon catch of nearly 257 million fish is the second-largest ever, behind only the record 273 million salmon taken in 2013.

The numbers are still being crunched in terms of values and the average prices paid to fishermen, but those totals will be far less than last year.

The shortfall stems from lower salmon prices across the board, driven by the 50-cents-a-pound base price for a catch of 36 million Bristol Bay sockeye salmon. That harvest totaled about $95 million at the docks, a huge drop from the $193 million last year.

The statewide sockeye catch topped 53 million reds.

Meanwhile, pink salmon catches set records in several regions this summer -- at Prince William Sound fishermen hauled in more than 98 million humpies. Nearly 30 million were taken at Kodiak and more than 16 million pinks were caught at the Alaska Peninsula.

The statewide pink salmon take totaled nearly 184 million fish. At an average weight of 3 1/2 pounds each priced at 20 cents a pound, the value of the pink pack will likely total around $128 million.

Other salmon: The king catch of around 500,000 fish is typical. Catches of nearly 16 million chums and 3.6 million silvers salmon were both a million fish shy of preseason expectations.

Fish polls

A majority of Alaskans and British Columbians are concerned about mining issues in transboundary river watersheds, according to polls in the respective countries. Polls were commissioned by Salmon Beyond Borders and SkeenaWild and conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. They included 815 responses from B.C. and 500 from Alaska during late August.

Highlights from a press release include:

• Nearly three-quarters of Alaska respondents expressed concern about a mining waste spill in B.C. affecting shared watersheds, with the number jumping to 86 percent for Southeast Alaska respondents.

• Seventy-six percent of Alaska respondents want Alaska to have a seat at an international table to address concerns about upstream B.C. mining in shared transboundary watersheds. Forty-five percent said their vote for a member of Congress hinges on elected officials pushing for this seat at the table.

• Sixty-five percent of British Columbians were less likely to support mines in northwest B.C. that could affect the integrity of Alaska's water quality.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

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