June 08, 2023

Unregulated fishing explodes, spells doom for jumbo flying squids in the absence of real change

In honor of World Oceans Day, our Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment (GLA) dives into the perils facing the highly intelligent jumbo flying squid and their importance to marine ecosystems.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers released a study on global high-seas squid fishing. Such fishing has intensified over the past several years, with particularly alarming increases in the Eastern Pacific ocean. Among other findings, the study confirmed that Chinese-flagged vessels, fishing “predominately in unregulated spaces,” account for these overall trends.

GLA students spent some of their time this last year researching the behaviors and fishing patterns of the Chinese squid fishing fleet and assessing the scope and nature of the laws that regulate the relevant fishing areas. Leveraging this research, Latin American Program Director Nick Fromherz offered analysis to journalists at Ojo Público, who in turn wrote an article on these troubling squid fishing trends. Stressing the need for heightened regulation from flag States and regional fisheries management organizations, Nick highlighted practical measures like tighter controls on transhipment at sea and quota or effort limits, all of which could have the benefit of limiting the numbers of highly intelligent squid killed. This blog provides an overview of why jumbo flying (Humboldt) squid are in peril and recommended actions to address this risk before it’s too late.

Who are the animal victims of this fishing activity?

As its name suggests, the jumbo flying squid is quite large, growing to 1.5 meters in mantle length and weighing up to 50 kilograms. Like most cephalopods, they show signs of remarkable intelligence. However, in part due to their preferred habitat at between 200 to 700 meters depth, scientific understanding of the species is hardly robust.

Yet if our understanding of this squid’s biology and ecology is less than complete, much clearer are the impacts that a warming ocean will bring to the species, with one study predicting that ocean acidification will lower the squid’s metabolic rate by 31% and activity levels by 45% by the end of the 21st century. Combined with growing population losses directly correlated with booming fishing effort for these squids, the picture looks bleak indeed.

The largely Asiatic fleets in this case – and make no mistake, these are genuine fleets, with well over 500 vessels, 98% flagged to China, active in the 2021 season – travel thousands of miles every year from the Western Pacific to the Eastern Pacific to target jumbo flying squid (a.k.a. Humboldt squid) (Dosidicus gigas) in the high seas adjacent to Peru and Ecuador. They then often swing around Tierra del Fuego to penetrate the Atlantic waters near Argentina for shortfin squid (Illex argentinus).

Year after year, like clockwork, the cycle repeats itself, with scores of Asiatic vessels plundering the high seas adjacent to South American national waters. As a key prey species for whales, sharks, and larger fish – and as a predator of other marine animals – mass capture of squid can lead to cascading effects throughout the marine food web.

What is unregulated fishing, and what does it look like in this particular case?

Unregulated fishing – one of three terms that constitutes the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing construct – is, in essence, fishing beyond the reach of the law. It’s not necessarily illegal, but neither does it have the affirmative blessing of the law. It’s fishing in the grey, liminal spaces.

In the case of the distant water fleet fishing for jumbo flying squid in the Eastern Pacific, the authors of the Science article determined that vast majority of the fishing activity was unregulated, in large measure because one of the important Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs) does not have adequate measures (like quotas or limits on fishing effort) specific to jumbo flying squid. Sadly, this means that the management body with oversight in much of the Eastern Pacific is failing to protect the jumbo flying squid.

Although quotas are insufficient to allow highly intelligent squid to live a life free of risk of capture, they can at least translate to thousands or even millions of lives spared and benefits to the marine ecosystem overall. At the very least, RFMOs like the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO) need to consider limited quotas consistent with the precautionary principle, ramp up observer coverage, and prohibit transshipment-at-sea to address the rampant exploitation of jumbo flying squid. Each of these actions works to limit the number of squid taken from the sea to the marketplace, either by limiting legal harvest or by reducing illegal fishing.

The plight of jumbo flying squid in the Eastern Pacific is, alas, anything but an anomaly in the world of marine wildlife. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, exploitation is the number one driver of aquatic animal loss. The Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment (GLA) continues to make the protection of marine animals and marine habitat a priority – including educating and training students by providing them the skills to undertake this important work to protect aquatic animals.

This blog was written by Nicholas Fromherz, Adjunct Professor and GLA’s Latin American Program Director and Erica Lyman, Clinical Professor and Director of GLA. The Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment (GLA) was launched in the fall of 2020 as an innovative collaboration of the Center for Animal Law Studies and the top ranked Environmental Law Program at Lewis & Clark Law School. GLA champions wild animals and wild spaces around the world.

The Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) was founded in 2008 with a mission to educate the next generation of animal law advocates and advance animal protection through the law. With vision and bold risk-taking, CALS has since developed into a world-renowned animal law epicenter. CALS’ Alumni-in-Action from over 20 countries are making a difference for animals around the world. CALS is a nonprofit organization funded through donations and grants.