Empty Seas: Two

PARIS - When it comes to fish, you can't keep a good plunderer down. Take the 50,000-ton Lafayette, a floating factory four times the size of the biggest super trawler, able to process a half-million tons a year as it prowled off South America, northern Europe and Africa.

Pacific Andes, a global ocean-emptying empire based in Hong Kong, spent $100 million to refit the old oil tanker in China and launched it under a Russian flag in 2008. It was banned on southern Pacific high seas for cheating on quotas a few years later, so the company bought its way into Peru and kept it within territorial limits.  

In Peru, it was renamed the Damanzaihao and reregistered in Mongolia, which is not picky about enforcing regulations. It switched to Belize, which later withdrew its flag. After legal battles in Peru, among travails elsewhere, Pacific Andes went belly up last year. Its former flagship was sold for a dime on the dollar to Russian owners seeking other waters to plunder.

The Lafayette-Damanzaihao saga reflects how the big players operate. A small-scale vignette shows the other extreme. Paris markets offer vanishing wild Atlantic salmon from the Basque country at up to $60 a pound. Fishermen net them as they swim back inland to spawn.

As fisheries collapse, industrial fleets and small-fry artisans alike work all the harder while there is something left to catch. Rather than enforce strict limits, governments help them with subsidies and legal loopholes.   

Back in 1998, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organizations said global fleets “are 2.5 times larger than needed.” Today, with far more demand, shipyards are booming. China and Russia alone each spend billions on high-tech vessels to mercilessly pursue dwindling stocks.

A fresh report from the University of British Columbia and the University of Western Australia says commercial fleets operating since the 1950s now overfish 90 percent of the ocean (there is only one). And their catches are dropping dramatically.

Such groups as Oceana and Pew Charitable Trusts lobby governments and sound alarms with public education. Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd hound outlaw fleets. But given the scale of plunder, even these substantial efforts amount to a drop in the ocean.

Conservationists often work at cross purposes with conflicting ideas about how to meet complex challenges. And the industry exploits public confusion, which allows them to keep on fishing until their nets and long lines can't haul up enough to turn a profit.

The rise and fall of Pacific Andes International Holdings shows what fish are up against.

At its peak, PacAndes traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange and reported more than 100 subsidiaries under various branches with an impenetrable network of many more affiliates. In 2011, when I began investigating, its Singapore-based China Fishery Group reported a 27.2 percent profit, up to $685.5 million, 55 percent of total income. That included the Lafayette's looting and operations in the Peru.

PacAndes was registered to holding companies in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. One major investor was the U.S.-based Carlyle Group, which held $150 million in shares before it divested. But it was a family business controlled by its director, Ng Joo Siang.

Ng was so elusive, shielded by public-relations flacks, that I began to think of him as the James Bond nemesis, Dr. No. In 2011, a source gave me his Chinese cellphone number, and I called him from the lobby of his Hong Kong aerie. He agreed to let me come up.

At 52, sleek in a bespoke suit, Ng turned out to be a jovial Louisiana State University graduate hooked on golf. His Malaysian Chinese father moved the family to Hong Kong and started a seafood business in 1986. When the board met, his father's portrait gazed down at his widow, who was chairwoman, his three sons and a daughter.

“My father told me the oceans were limitless,” he said, “but that was a false signal. We don't want to damage the resources, to be blamed for damage. I don't think our shareholders would like it. I don't think our children would like it very much.”

But he snorted when I noted that the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO) set a limit that year of 520,000 tons to keep jack mackerel from collapsing. The Lafayette alone could process that many if its feeder vessels managed to catch them all.

“Based on what, on this?” Ng replied, thrusting a moistened finger into the air as if checking the wind. “There is no science,” he said. “The (organization) has no science. How much money has Vanuatu or Chile or whoever put in to understand about fisheries?”

In fact, Chile spent $10.5 million in 2011 on its Instituto de Fomento Pesquero, which recommended quotas based on hard science. In the intrigues of fish politics, Ng sided with Peru, where the government routinely ignored the advice of its own experts. PacAndes operated 32 vessels in Peru at the time, and later bought a major Peruvian company.

The bony, bronze little jack mackerel is barely known and loved mostly in Africa, where is cheap protein. Mostly, it is reduced to fishmeal to feed more popular farmed species or pigs and chickens. But it is what's known as a pelagic forage fish, crucial to the marine food web.

PacAndes pushed beyond every limit it could. The Lafayette operated with a half-dozen catcher trawlers that fed its huge processing plants. As fishing grounds collapsed, even subsidized fuel and official complacency couldn't fill its holds. And it is only one example among many commercial fleets.

In New Zealand, back then, I talked with Martini Gotje, a Dutch expatriate who crewed aboard the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior when French agents sank it in Auckland harbor in 1985. Gotje tracked vessels with a bank of computers attuned to satellites. He faulted overcapacity -- legal and yet devastating.

The first priority, he said, should be saving fish, not the fishing industry. “The Lafayette raised the game to an incredible level, and Holland is very much involved,” he told me. “There are way too many boats, just simply way too many boats.”

Today, seven years later, there are simply way, way, way too many boats across the world, and there are 700 million more mouths to feed.

The case of jack mackerel shows how greed thwarts good intentions and common sense. Over two decades since the late 1980s, stocks plummeted from an estimated 30 million tons to less three million, mostly because of Chilean fleets. Chile saw the light and worked with other fishing states to set up SPRFMO. That, ironically, hastened the stock's demise.

As Gotje noted, the Netherlands-based Pelagic Freezer-Trawler Association, PFA, representing 25 mostly Dutch vessels flagged in the European Union, was also a major predator. Gerard van Balsfoort, the PFA president, told me why.

“It was one of the few areas where still you could get free entry,” van Balsfoort said. “It looked as though too many vessels would head south, but there was no choice. If you were too late in your decision to go there, they could have closed the gate.”

By 2010, SPRFMO tallied 75 vessels in its region. Today, scientists say jack mackerel are slowly recovering. That, fleet operators say, is because decimated stocks were so scattered that it has not been worth the effort and expense to chase them.

Like most fish stories, this one could go on forever. Climate change warms waters and alters currents. Plastics and garbage islands choke rich fishing grounds. Seabed mining plows the ocean floor. But the main threat is rampant overfishing.

Unless governments stop condoning, if not encouraging, the plunder, big fleets and coastal fishermen are likely to keep at it until there is nothing left to catch.