Looting the Seas is an award-winning project by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists looking at forces that are rapidly emptying oceans of fish. In its first installment ICIJ documented the massive black market in threatened bluefin tuna. In the second, it revealed that billions of dollars in subsidies flow into the Spanish fishing industry despite its record of flouting rules and breaking the law.
For the last of the three-part investigation, ICIJ reporters focused on an unlikely protagonist: the bony, bronzed-hued jack mackerel in the southern Pacific. Industrial fleets, after fishing out other waters decimated it at stunning speed. Since so much jack mackerel is reduced to fishmeal for aquaculture and pigs, we eat it unaware with each forkful of farmed salmon.
The plunder continues today as the world’s largest trawlers head south before binding quotas are established. Not long ago, this was one of the world’s richest fishing grounds.
ICIJ reporters ranged from New Zealand’s South Island to the top of Norway and from ramshackle wharves in Chile and Peru to carpeted offices in Brussels and Hong Kong. They conducted more than 100 interviews; filed freedom of information requests in the European Union, Peru and the Netherlands; and analyzed more than 100,000 catch and inspection records.
In Chile, where the damage is greatest, Juan Pablo Figueroa Lasch of the investigative reporting center CIPER looked at the few powerful families and industrial groups that control 87 percent of the jack mackerel catch. He lived aboard the Santa María II, watching as fishermen hauled up mostly empty nets.
In Peru, Milagros Salazar of IDL-Reporteros investigated another species used for fishmeal, anchoveta. It is the world’s largest fishery. She found cheating so massive — at rigged scales and unsupervised docks — that at least 630,000 tons of fish “vanished” in just two and a half years.
Fish, the reporters found, are at the heart of geopolitical wrangling among governments that protect, and often subsidize, their fleets. Mar Cabra, who covered Brussels, is still waiting for most EU records she requested through freedom of information laws. EU officials refused to give her catch records, saying disclosure would undermine the “protection of commercial interests.”
Plenty of sources spoke frankly and at length. When Mort Rosenblum asked to speak with the elusive Ng Joo Siang, head of the giant Hong Kong fishing conglomerate, Pacific Andes, the company’s outsourced public relations people refused to transmit the request. But a call to the man’s cell phone produced a lengthy and revealing interview.
Our media partners are Le Monde (France), the International Herald Tribune, El Mundo (Spain) and Trouw (The Netherlands). In addition, ICIJ is co-producing a documentary with London-based tve that is planned to air on BBC World News TV in the spring.
Project Manager: Mort Rosenblum
Editors: Marina Walker Guevara and Gerard Ryle
Reporters: Mar Cabra, Juan Pablo Figueroa Lasch, Milagros Salazar, Roman Anin, Irene Jay Liu, Kate Willson and Nicky Hager
Data Editor: David Donald
Data Analysis: Milagros Salazar and Miguel López Chauca
Web: Sarah Whitmire
Graphics: Ajani Winston
To see a comprehensive list of foundations that support ICIJ, click here.