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Cover Story

The last frontier

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Aug 15, 1995 | From the print edition

The Earth's overexploited seas are in danger of turning into the Last Frontier. In giant, demonic trawls, the World's oceans are being systematically emptied of their marine life - from dumb tuna to pixie-like, intelligent dolphins. The unsustainable fishing recently - into an armed face-off. A troublesome peace arrived reconciliation. A UN conference on straddling fish stocks has sought to set up a global framework on utilising marine resources. But in a world fast running out of calories, the chances of a maritime conflagration can only increase. Down To Earth dives into the depths of these tangled issues

-- Too wide a net

The world's fishing industry is on self-destructive overdrive and countries are belligerently marking out marine territory

KAVITA CHARANJI

TOO many boats chasing too few fish.

That's the story being replayed with increasing frustration in the world's major oceans.

In the North Pacific, triggerhappy fishermen competing for schools of tuna shoot holes in their rivals' marker buoys. In the North Atlantic, cod has been fished virtually to the brink of extinction, forcing the Canadian government to impose a 2-year ban on commercial cod fishing. The Indian Ocean promises to get choppier with Indian fisherfolk chafing against foreign fishing vessels.

The depletion of fish stocks in the world's oceans has led to many potential flashpoints. The most recent instance was the high seas drama enacted between Canada and Spain off Newfoundland in March--complete with gunboats, a seizure of a Spanish trawler and a fierce exchange of verbiage. (See Down to Earth, Vl 4, No 1). Though the dust has since settled and harmony has been restored in the North Atlantic, the sharp confrontation has put the world on alert that future conflict shock may well lie on the high seas.

The most recent flashpoint was a potential loose cannon drama in March enacted between Canada and Spain off Newfoundland -- complete with gunboats, the impounding of a Spanish trawler and fierce verbal broadsides (Down To Earth, Vl 4, No 1). As predicted by environmental crystal ball watchers over the past half a decade, future shock may well lie on the high seas.

Competition betweeen fiesh stocks has been fierce: Norway vs Iceland, Indonesia vs Taiwan, Russia vs China, Thailand vs Malaysia, France vs Britain vs Spain, and Indian fishermen vs all foreign fleets.

The reason, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), is that more than 70 per cent of the world's fish are either fully exploited, in decline, seriously depleted or under drastic limits to allow a recovery. "The history of fishing is to postpone problems until you run out of fish, which is where we are now," says Christopher Newton, who directs the statistics service of the FAO. Global fish catches increased five-fold between 1950 and 1989, rising from around 20 million tonnes to just over 100 tonnes. Then catches began to fall and finally plateaued at around 101 million tonnes in 1993.

"There is no increase in fish for food and the capture of valuable species is declining," says Newton. The decline in Atlantic cod has been particularly dramatic: for decades the cod catch remained at around 2.5 million tonnes a year. In the 1990s this has slumped to barely half of that, at a loss to fishermen off around $ 7 billion. Other prized species on the decline because of overfishing are haddock, hake, flounder and shrimp. "Virtually all species show signs of chronic overfishing from the large, slow-growing fish to the small, fast-growing ones," says Robin Welcomme, head of the FAO's inland fisheries section.
Depleting the oceans The overall fish catch figures disguise the fact that the quality of the catch is declining. By and large, the decline in high value fish species has been offset by increased catches of less valuable fish such as Alaskan pollack, Peruvian anchoveta, Chilean mackerel and South American and Japanese pilchard. Now these species too are coming under pressure. Environmentalists lay the blame for overfishing on rapid advances in "high tech fishing", particularly aboard factory trawlers. These 350-foot vessels can now weave through fishing grounds on autopilot while crew members keep track of the fish on sonar screens and use a joy stick to guide giantic nets into the heart of the schools.

Technologically advanced countries often appear to be worse off than the others: in US waters, 43 percent of the fish stocks are overexploited, in some European waters the figure goes up to 65 percent. In the North Sea, fishermen haul in one to two-year-old cod, haddock and whiting. A repeat of the same story is being played out in Asia and Africa. "Fish once caught at one meter long are now being taken at 10 cms. It is a classic syndrome in most world rivers," says Welcome, who cites the Mekong River in south east Asia and rivers in Bangladesh and West Africa as areas of particular concern.

Overfishing and pollution have sharply reduced catches in enclosed seas such as the Black Sea and caused economic dislocations in nations bordering them. To compound the fish decline syndrome, the world's fishing fleet grew by leaps and bounds over the past 25 years as more and more nations gave a boost to fishing industries.

Fishing industry goes under
Governments respond to falling catches by building more and higher tech boats to get a bigger slice of the ocean pie. A huge amount of $ 50 billion is poured into subsidies into the industry to support fishermen who otherwise would have gone under. By UN estimates, fishermen lost $ 22 billion after sales of $ 70 billion in 1989 and were bailed out by credit and subsidies of $ 54 billion.

The effects of the artificial propping up of the fishing industry are in evidence everywhere: in Russia a fleet of aging factory trawlers have now been forced into idleness because of loss in subsidies and its fish catches are dropping sharply. Economic prospects for western fishermen are none too bright either. In the city of Seattle, USA, banks are repossessing vessels and selling them out at steeply reduced prices to new owners who put them back out to sea cheaply and push competitors out of the business.

The chips are down for fishermen in other ways too. In Philippines, the collapse of major fishing grounds is uprooting 38, 000 fishermen every year. A two-year ban on commercial cod fishing off the Newfoundland coast of Canada, has put 40, 000 fishermen and plant workers out of work. For fishermen off Florida also an old way of life seems to be drawing to a close. In November last year, Florida citizens, concerned about over-fishing and the dangers of entangling nets killing sea turtles and dolphins, voted yes to Amendment 3, which drastically limits net fishing in Florida waters.

Despite all the portends of gloom, there is no sign of any letting up in global fishing habits. Today, 20 nations account for 80 percent of the world catch at sea. China is the world's biggest fishing nations with around 10 million tonnes a year caught offshore, followed by Japan, Peru, Chile and the US with 5. 8 million tonnes.

Not content with the reckless plundering of the oceans, there is a high degree of wastage too. Z.S. Karnicki, chief of the FAO's fishing marketing service, says with reference to an American study that fishermen may actually catch and discard an estimated 27 million tonnes of fish annually. The throw aways invariably occur when boats fishing for a particular valuable species catch lesser value fish that are not regarded as worth the ice and hold space it would take to store them. "It is a tremendous loss. Systems have to be worked out that would oblige boats to bring in their entire catch," says Karnicki. FAO specialists are of the opinion that action will have to be taken double quick to prevent an escalation of the global fisheries crisis. Among the major steps they advocate are controlling the wastage, replenishing stocks, limiting fleets and encouraging the expansion of eco-friendly aquaculture.

These measures are easier said than translated into practice. Even with production cuts, it may take as long as 10 years to replenish long-lived species to sustainable levels again. Hard economic and social realities only aggravate the fising crisis. Amidst recession and spiralling unemployment, industrial countries have for political and economic reasons been unable to cut fleet size and worker strength.

In developing countries, at least 10 million people are traditional fulltime fisherfolk and their future rests on the ocean's resources. "Together with wives and dependents, there are an estimated 100 million of the world's poorest dependent on fishing for all or part of their livelihoods," estimates Brian O'Riordan of the British-based NGO Intermediate Technology. India is a prime example of a country with a large fishing community: over 7.5 million people earn their livelihood from fishing.

Thankfully there are occasional glimmers of hope in the horizon. A recent UN Conference on Straddling Stocks and Highly Migratory Species which concluded in mid-April has brought the world a step closer to an accord on conservation on the high seas. These fish stocks, which travel across boundaries, constitute only 10 percent of the world's catch but are being increasingly exploited as stocks get exhausted nearer home.

A legal, binding agreement to safeguard fish on the high seas has assumed top priority for many coastal nations such as Chile, Canada, India and USA. Though 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea with its 200-mile exclusive economic zone enables states to conserve stocks close to their shores, as coastal waters get steadily depleted, the action has shifted now to the high seas which are harder to police and where fish stocks are very mobile. "The UN Conference on Straddling Stocks and highly migratory species is an outcome of the realisation that fish conservation would be necessary outside the 200 mile limit UNCLOS as well," says a government official.

No man's waters
The proposed UN treaty for fish on the high seas would bring a semblance of order into what effectively are no-man's waters at the moment.The draft treaty discussed in New York addresses several important enforcement measures such as monitoring and surveillance on the high seas. These would go in tandem with steps to enable individual ports to keep out ships undermining local conservation efforts and a strong responsibility on flag states to police their own fleets.

The main thrust of the treaty's approach to conservation is that countries cannot indulge in overfishing behind the smokescreen of lack of scientific evidence on stocks.

There are a few hitches, however, that will have to be ironed out before the treaty becomes hard reality. The major hurdle is the opposition from countries with no significant coastline of their own such as the European Union, Japan, Taiwan and Korea. "These countries have exhausted the fish in their own waters and have fleets that go further afield. They do not want a strong convention on straddling fish stocks but would prefer a general, non-binding document," points out the Indian government official quoted above.

Yet the world can ill afford such divisive politics as fish stocks come under a tight squeeze. The warning signals of the decline in the world's oceans are all there, it's for the international community to respond with stringent measures --or let future generations pay the price for the present squandering of the ocean's resources.

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