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Huge Under-Reporting of Fish Catch Revealed in Caribbean

08 August 2016

TURKS and CAICOS ISLANDS - Marine fisheries catches have been drastically under-reported in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean, threatening the marine environment and livelihoods of the local community, reveals a recent study.

Actual catches on the islands were an alarming 2.8 times, or 86 per cent higher than that reported to the FAO, and this has very troubling implications.

Lead researcher Aylin Ulman, recently based at the Sea Around Us, and her team call for urgent action from policy-makers to ensure the future sustainability of the fishing industry in this archipelago nation.

Fishing has historically been the main industry in the Turks and Caicos Islands and in some areas up to 75 per cent of locals are involved in the fishing industry. The rise in tourism is creating more demand for locally caught seafood and is placing increasing pressure on local marine life.

The islands operate small-scale fisheries for queen conch, Caribbean spiny lobster, and finfish as the three main targets. The local government is required to report all catches to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) to be able to trade with signatory nations of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The international trade of wild animals must be shown to not threaten the survival of local stocks.

However, the data that are passed on to the FAO are incorrect because they only account for commercial catches that will be exported, and do not include seafood caught and consumed by locals and tourists on the islands. This can put future stocks at risk.

"DEMA (The Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs) has done a great job of monitoring fish sold to the country's fish plants," said Ms Ulman. "However, it seems they have not always had enough staff to monitor seafood being sold or given to locals and tourists, whether that be at the dock, in shops, or in restaurants."

The study found that local consumption of conch alone is close to the total number allowed to be caught under these 'sustainable' limits, and this is without taking into account the number of conch that are exported, which is almost equal to local consumption.

As a result of this study, the authors hope that future catch limits will be based on total seafood catches from all fishery sectors.

"Local seafood consumption surveys should continue to be completed once every three to five years to track changing patterns, especially with the ongoing growth of tourism. Local consumption catches must be factored into the equation when calculating the total allowable catch limits, especially for key species of conch and lobster, to determine if it is even possible to continue the export business," said Ms Ulman.

New legislation is needed to reduce seafood catches so that stocks are being fished within safe limits, and this study adds new weight to the urgency of this issue. The Turks and Caicos Islands Government have recommended a stop to the export of conch for up to five years to allow populations to recover, but they have been delayed in implementing this.

The study is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

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