By Environment Correspondent Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fish piracy - seafood caught illegally, not reported to authorities or outside environmental and catch regulations - represents as much as $10 billion to $23 billion in global losses each year, a non-profit conservation group estimated Wednesday.
Because pirated fish is sold on black markets, specifics of the economic impact are tough to decipher. But Oceana, a Washington-based organization, looked at the records of fish catches by country as reported to the United Nations, then compared those statistics to seafood sales in various world markets.
When these numbers didn't match up, the group estimated the amount lost through fish piracy, a practice that U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Jane Lubchenco has called "one of the most serious threats to American fishing jobs and fishing communities."
The report said illegal trade could account for 11 million to 25 million metric tons of seafood, a minimum of 20 percent of seafood worldwide.
Illegal fishing targets some of the most expensive species, including shrimp, fugu pufferfish, lobster, whole abalone and sea urchin uni. Penalties are often a fraction of potential profit, the report found. In one U.S. case, an illegal catch worth up to $1 million brought a $3,5000 penalty.
The report estimated that illegal trade threatens 260 million jobs dependant on marine fisheries.
For example, the shark fin trade in Hong Kong suggests that three to four times more sharks are being killed than official reports say, with $292 million to $476 worth of shark fins sold.
Oceana said that Florida law enforcement agents' estimates showed that one illegal operator stole $1,400 a week from legal operators by exceeding the catch limit on king mackerel.
Fishermen who comply with legal standards can also lose business when they sell in the same market as illegal operators who don't follow environmental or sanitary standards, the report found.
In addition, adults and children have been trafficked into service on illegal fishing ships, making a catch more lucrative, the report said.
Illegally caught Russian sockeye salmon is estimated to be 60 percent to 90 percent above reported levels, a loss of $40 million to $74 million, according to Oceana.
Annual black market sales of bluefin tuna may reach $4 billion, with the amount of illegally caught fish five to 10 times higher than the official catch, the report said.
"I don't think people think of fish as valuable, and when they think of crime, I don't think they think about seafood," Oceana senior scientist Margot Stiles said in a telephone interview. "But behind closed doors and out at sea, there's all this money made by stealing fish."
In the past, governments have stepped up enforcement to combat the problem, but that approach was limited.
Stiles suggested a two-part solution: first, cut back government fishing subsidies, which ultimately pay for some of the illegal catch, and increase seafood tracking from its source to the consumer.
Using the same technology as in the package delivery industry, some large seafood dealers, markets and restaurants are already tracking fish.
MJ Gimbar, chief fishmonger at Black Salt Fish Market in Washington, said his company's program is inexpensive to implement and offers customers assurances about what they are buying: "It allows them to put a face with the fish."
The market's website offers species-specific information on the sources of its seafood, at Http://www.blackrestaurantgroup.com/eco-practices/by-sea/ .
Oceana reported in February that one-third of seafood tested in the United States was mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines.
(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Marilyn Thompson and Philip Barbara)