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Under-reporting of catches threatens Caribbean marine life

When factoring in tourist and resident consumption of locally sourced seafood, the number of fish removed from waters is almost three times as high as previously thought.

By Stephen Feller
Under-reporting of catches threatens Caribbean marine life
Sea life such as the spiny lobster, pictured, are a key part of the fishing industry in Turks and Caicos but inaccurate reports of catches -- local consumption has been ignored -- could threaten an industry employing as much as 75 percent of residents in some areas. Photo by Leonardo Gonzalez/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- In order to prevent the destruction of fisheries, regulations limit the amount of fish that can be caught in Caribbean islands, but researchers fear ineffective methods of counting catches threaten to destroy marine life and the fishing industry.

The number of fish caught in the Turks and Caicos Islands may be nearly three times as high as reported, according to a new study, because while exports are among counts, fish consumed on the island are not.

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Fisheries for queen conch, Caribbean spiny lobster and finfish are three of the main targets for seafood-related businesses in the islands, with up to 75 percent of local residents involved in the industry in some areas.

International rules dictate how many fish can be removed from the waters, meant to protect marine life and prevent overfishing of individual species, and require catches to be reported. Researchers say, however, that increasing tourism and demand for local seafood, which is not included in reports, threatens regional marine life.

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"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," Aylin Ulman, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, said in a press release. "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."

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For the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, researchers reviewed fish catches reported to the islands' Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs in Turks and Caicos between 1950 and 2012, factoring in additional information from seafood consumption surveys involving locals and tourists in 2013, combining the data to revise estimates from the previous 60 years.

Using estimates of the number of tourists on the island, number of residents and estimates of consumption, the researchers found actual catches on the island are 2.8 times higher than reported by the Turks and Caicos to the FAO, and 86 percent higher than the export-adjusted national reported baseline.

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The researchers suggest these numbers require addition regulation and monitoring be put in place in order to properly monitor the number of fish actually removed from waters, or risk damaging not just the fishing business but marine life in the islands.

"DEMA has done a great job of monitoring fish sold to the country's fish plants," Ulman said. "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."

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