WWF crab report a mix of good, bad advice


Sean Murphy, SeafoodSource online editor

Published on
October 21, 2014

Government regulators and those in a position to influence them would do well not to overreact to a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on Russian crab fishing and exports.

The report, Illegal Russian Crab: An Investigation of Trade Flow, highlights the persistence of illegal crab fishing and the potential impact it has on foreign markets. The report is useful, but only to those who examine it with a critical eye. Readers should not focus on older data, which seems irrelevant and possibly inflammatory, but noteworthy is the suggestion that even as recently as last year, Russian crab fishermen lied about how much crab they caught, since the amount of crab other countries bought from Russia adds up to a lot more than what the fishermen said they pulled in.

WWF is not the first to suggest there’s a problem in Russia. American crabbers have stated publicly that they believe this problem has existed for years, and this new report certainly lends credence to that belief.

The most relevant figures from the report show that in 2013, South Korea, China, Japan and the United States imported a total of “1.69 times as much live and frozen crab from Russia as official Russian harvest levels.” While the report does not specifically cite a source for that claim, related graphs and charts in the report cite the Russian Federal Fishing Agency for Russia’s quota and harvest data, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other global trade data for import data into destination countries.

This data does seem to back up the allegation that the Russian fisheries are exporting more crab than they claim to have fished. The report also cites Russia’s Pacific Scientific Research Center for Fisheries and Oceanography when arguing that domestic Russian consumption would not be a factor. “Domestic consumption of crab is low, which means that Russia exports most of its crab harvest,” WWF wrote.

Unfortunately, it is from here that the usefulness of the report begins to falter. NGOs should stop trying to elevate problems to apocalyptic proportions their own data won’t support. When the WWF’s report came out last week, the press release that accompanied it used the word “rampant” to describe the problem, a word that doesn’t appear anywhere in its own report.

To the contrary, the WWF data clearly shows the problem is hardly as bad today as during its peak from 2005 to 2007. After that, the Russian government put a number of measures into place that have significantly closed the gap between what Russian crab fisheries say they are catching and how much they actually do catch. That’s real progress, and hardly the “rampant” situation WWF claims exists.

It’s reminiscent of Oceana’s report released back in March on bycatch in the nine principal fisheries in the United States. The press release accompanying that report called them the “dirtiest” fisheries, a claim that suggests sins way beyond bycatch. Not surprisingly, Oceana’s report didn’t exactly support the claims in its press release either.

There is good advice in the WWF report, namely for buyers to seek transparency, ask for open and available documentation of landings and adopt similar measures to make it harder for crab fishermen to hide the truth. Also, WWF encourages consumers to insist on legal crab, and possibly ask for verification. It’s never a bad idea to ask consumers to educate themselves more about where their food comes from.

Unfortunately, WWF then cites the U.S. Presidential Task Force examining illegal fishing and seafood fraud. Created in June by NOAA and the U.S. State Department, the task force is expected to offer recommendations to the Obama administration in December. WWF goes into detail on new regulations it hopes the task force will recommend to combat illegal crab fishing. As has been said in a previous column, new regulations aren’t the answer here — rather, we need to examine what regulations already exist, and work on enforcement, not just a new set of rules that will punish law-abiding crabbers and won’t be any more effective than what we have now.

Overall, the WWF deserves praise for a thorough and clear report, even though half the data could have been removed to focus attention on the present issue. Having said that, while there have been great strides in controlling illegal Russian crab fishing, the problem still exists. Clearly, more must be done to address the issue, but added layers of bureaucracy and excessive hype isn’t the way to do it.

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