The last frontier
Too wide a net
The world's fishing industry is on self-destructive overdrive and countries are belligerently marking out marine territory
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.
Scales out of balance
The voyage towards consensus building on ocean resources has always been protracted. Take the 3rd United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which began in 1972. It took nearly 10 years to reach consensus on the single negotiating text. On the appointed date -- 10 December 1982 -- the US Government backed out of signing the Convention. Consequently it took 12 years to ratify and finally came into international force only in November 1994.
One important unsettled UNCLOS issue related to high seas fisheries -- fishing undertaken outside the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in territory referred to as the common heritage of humankind. The concerns within this issue include unregulated fishing, over-exploitation, excessive fleet size, reflagging of vessels to evade controls, use of non-selective gear, unreliable databases and lack of cooperation between States.
All these became particularly contentious with regard to fishing for straddling and highly migratory fish stocks. Straddling stocks are fish that occur naturally both within and beyond areas under national jurisdiction. The most well known is the Atlantic cod in Canada, which was sustainably harvested for hundreds of years before being devastated by 40 years of bottom trawling. Highly migratory stocks are fish such as tuna, that migrate largely between areas under national jurisdiction.
Problems pertaining to these stocks were raised at the Rio Summit in 1992 and hence prompted the call for an intergovernmental conference under the auspices of the United Nations to promote effective implementation of the provisions of UNCLOS in this regard.
Preserving a common heritage
The United Nations Conference on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, has already held five gruelling sessions from July 1993 to March-April 1995. The Conference, in the words of Chairman, Satya Nandan of Fiji, has already achieved broad agreement on almost all its provisions and an agreement, if all goes well, is expected to be signed at the final session due to be held at New York in July-August 1995.
The major interested parties at this Conference are the coastal states on the one hand and the distant water fishing nations on the other. The former group, which is the largest, is led by Canada and the latter, comprising the European Union (EU), Japan, China, Korea and Poland is led by the EU. While the coastal states want greater control on high seas fishing activities, the distant water fishing nations, are averse to any control on their fishing activities by the non-flag States. Despite these conflicting interests, the draft Agreement produced at the end of the March-April 1995 session, within the framework of rights and duties of states as specified in UNCLOS, attempts to further define and develop the duties of flag and non-flag States in the high seas.
The draft agreement creates 3 essential pillars. Firstly, it provides for principles and practices on which better management of stocks should be based. Secondly, it tries to create a mechanism to ensure that conservation and management measures adopted for the high seas are adhered to, complied with, and not undermined by those who fish in those areas. And thirdly, it provides for quick and peaceful settlement of disputes.
The agreement seeks non-conflicting conservation and management arrangements both within and beyond the areas under national jurisdiction (EEZs), by coastal states and distant water fishing nations, based on the precautionary approach. In keeping with this, the draft stresses that "the absence of adequate scientific information shall not be used as a reason for postponing or failing to take conservation and management measures." It consequently stresses the importance of collection of relevant data and information. The principles and practices for better conservation and management also include the development and use of selective, environmentally safe and cost-effective fishing gear and techniques, elimination of overfishing and excess fishing capacity and enforcement of conservation and management measures through effective monitoring, control and surveillance mechanisms.
The draft agreement recognizes that better management of stocks is the responsibility of all states irrespective of jurisdictional considerations. It therefore recognises the right of non-flag states to board and inspect vessels in support of sub-regionally, regionally or globally agreed conservation and management measures. By giving enforcement powers to both flag and non-flag states, the Conference hopes to achieve better compliance with and effectiveness of these measures.
A revealing sense of urgency
The significance of this Conference arises mainly from the fact that this is the first major international treaty negotiation to be held on fisheries after the realization by the world community that the marine fisheries resources are indeed quite limited in quantity and vulnerable to excessive pressure and wasteful fishing activity. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation's State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture released in March 1995 reports that "about 70 percent of the world's marine fish stocks are fully to heavily exploited, overexploited, depleted or slowly recovering." It also points out that "between 17.9 and 39.5 million tonnes of fish a year are discarded at sea." Against this grim backdrop, the draft Agreement does not leave anything to chance and indeed shows a sense of urgency by strongly building in a realistic time factor into the implementation of conservation and management measures.
One of the salient aspects of the draft Agreement as explained above is the importance it attaches to the precautionary approach to management. This is a major departure from current practice in fisheries management where action is usually delayed until proper scientific data is available, by which time the stock is on the verge of ruin! In the case of new or exploratory fisheries, the draft Agreement prescribes conservative conservation and management measures. Further development of a fishery, according to this prescription, should be attempted only if data supports such a development.
Thee other major departure from established practice relates to the traditional flag state principle which accepts that on the high seas only flag states have jurisdiction over their vessels. The draft Agreement grants enforcement power to non-flag states. However a balance is yet to be struck between the rights of the flag states and enforcement by non-flag states, should the flag state express reluctance or unwillingness to take action against their vessels for violation of regionally agreed conservation measures. The EU and Japan have, however, taken strong exception to the right of non-flag states to board and inspect vessels. They maintain that the right to board and inspect vessels on international waters should be worked out through regional arrangements and not global principles. Such objections from powerful distant water fishing nations may block progress of the Conference at its final session in July 1995. The Chairman of the Conference, however, feels that such objections at the final stage could force a vote on the agreement.
The draft Agreement also makes unprecedented provisions for excluding non-member states from fishing in areas of the high seas under regional and sub-regional entities. In order to prevent non-members of sub-regional and regional fishery management organizations or arrangements from undermining management measures, the Agreement forbids such states from allowing their vessels to operate in fisheries that are subject to conservation and management measures under this Agreement. In other words, only members of regional and sub-regional organizations and arrangements can allow their vessels to operate in areas under the jurisdiction of such organizational arrangements. Countries like Taiwan (which are not members of the UN system) that have proven fishing capabilities on the high seas, will have to restrict their fishing activities in areas of the ocean that are not under any regional or sub-regional management authority.
This measure has important implications for developing states that do not yet have any sub-regional or regional fisheries organization, to think in terms of establishing such mechanisms irrespective of their fishing capabilities on the high seas. The future of fisheries development and management lies in the creation of a mosaic of such regional organisations which club together the EEZs of the participating states under the rubric of international treaties. The possibility of a SAARC fisheries organisation which makes ecological and economic sense needs to be explored.
The national and international NGOs who were present represented a variety of interests including environment, fishworker, development and industry. These included the Greenpeace International (Fisheries Campaign), International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (Madras), Women and Fisheries Network (Fiji), Oceans Caucus (Canada), CREDETIP (Senegal), Worldwide Fund for Nature (UK). Individually and collectively these NGOs have been able to influence the drafting process through their direct interventions and lobbying efforts.
Under mechanisms for international cooperation concerning straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks, the draft Agreement further allows for opportunity to NGOs to participate in meetings of sub-regional or regional fisheries management organization or arrangements and timely access to information of such entities. This greatly enhances the transparency of the Agreement.
Protecting the fishworkers
The fishworkers' organisations from the South have reason to feel happy about the outcome of the conference because many of their concerns in relation to protecting access to resources, laxity of flag state responsibility, overcapitalisation and overfishing, non-selectivity of fishing gear and techniques have been addressed to a certain degree in the draft Agreement.
Thus in Part VII of the draft Agreement, dealing with the special requirements of developing states, the Agreement underscores "the need to avoid adverse impacts on and ensure access to fisheries by subsistence, small-scale, artisanal and women fishworkers as well as indigenous peoples in developing states". While establishing conservation and management measures for straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks.
The Article on General Principles also includes, as a result of lobbying by environmental and fishworker related organisations, a new paragraph on "taking into account the interests of artisanal and subsistence fishers" while giving effect to the duty of the States to cooperate in accordance with the UNCLOS. It also includes the need to "promote the development and require the use of selective, environmentally safe and cost-effective fishing gear and techniques."
A new paragraph in Article 20 on international cooperation in enforcement could also help several coastal fishing communities dependent on highly migratory fish stocks like tuna. They could expect redressal for violations by flag state vessels who engage in unauthorized fishing within their national waters. The paragraph makes it obligatory for the flag state to take action against such vessels at the request of the coastal state, and also to cooperate with the coastal state in taking appropriate enforcement action. The flag state may even have to authorize the coastal state to board and inspect such vessels on the high seas.
In the context of the current agitation of Indian fishworkers against the redeployment of fishing vessels from the North into our waters under the guise of 'Joint ventures,' the measures in the draft agreement are neither strong enough nor comprehensive enough to strike at the root causes. Though the General Principles advocate "measures to prevent or eliminate over-fishing and excess fishing capacity" it does not require the elimination of non-selective fishing gear and techniques. This is in spite of common knowledge and scientific evidence about the responsibility of bottom trawlers for causing the dramatic collapse of cod stocks in the Grand Banks off Canada. The draft Agreement also fails to address the issue of the large fisheries subsidies, offered by developed countries to their deep sea fleets, which run in the tens of billions of dollars a year and contribute significantly to overfishing and excess vessel capacity.
While the draft Agreement recognises the need to establish consistent measures for conservation of straddling and highly migratory stocks whether they are fished inside or outside the EEZs of the States, the legal requirement to apply these measures strictly inside the EEZs is missing. This can indeed be counterproductive in the long run considering that straddling and highly migratory fish stocks in the high seas account for only 10 to 20 per cent of the world's fisheries output.
Urgency in the air
The draft agreement also does not make any mention of safety and working conditions on board fishing vessels, and attempts to include provisions in this regard under the flag State responsibility were turned down by the Chair on the ground that these are precincts of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Legitimisation of regulatory regimes by all stakeholders is important for the efficacy of law. Making, or reiterating, provisions to protect workers' rights would greatly enable legitimacy of the regulatory framework from fishworkers, and they are indeed a major stakeholder in any fishery around the world.
Had the provisions in the draft Agreement been incorporated in UNCLOS in 1982, it may have averted in a big way the critical situation facing world fisheries today. There is thus an overall sense of urgency in the air. The fisheries ministers from around the world issued a ministerial declaration in March 1995 called the "Rome Consensus on World Fisheries" and an intergovernmental Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries is being drafted by the FAO. Against this background, though still deficient and too little too late, the draft Agreement is a small step in the right direction. It is however, still too early to be complacent about even this small achievement. There is the serious risk that the text may be substantially watered down at the final session of the Conference in July 95. The fact also remains that ratification of the treaty by a sufficient number of states (40 ratifications are needed) may well take us to the dawn of the next century.