Save the sea encouraging local participation of fisherfolk to arrest overfishing and damage to the eco-system

By Max Van Den Berg
Published: Friday 31 January 1997

-- european, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese and Russian ships have today become a common phenomenon along coastal waters all over the world. This means a heavy blow to both the local eco-systems and the fisherpeople and fish processors. Social Watch, a Netherlands-based informal network of ngos concerned with social development published a report last year which contains special information on 12 countries, one of them being India. The author dedicates a rather alarming paragraph to the overexploitation of the ocean and coastal waters that has resulted in dramatic loss of livelihood in hundreds of local communities.

Traditional fisherfolk cannot compete with big merchants who have modern preservation and transport facilities. Especially women, being involved in the cleaning, preserving and selling of fish, are heavily affected by this competition.In the long term, due to the intensive and unecological fishing methods, their source of livelihood is permanently jeopardised, writes the author of the report.

This is an acute and chronic problem in the Southern countries. The Food and Agriculture Organization (fao) of the United Nations warns that the current level of utilisation in fishing cannot be maintained. The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture of 1995 mentions that in the early '90s, 69 per cent of the conventional species of the total catch was being overfished, had already become extinct, or was recovering after overfishing. Between 1950 and 1989, the total yearly catch has increased from nearly 20 million tonne (mt) to over 100 mt. This situation cannot continue at a global level as already, serious ecological and economic damages can be observed.

Presently, European ngos are heavily involved in a campaign against fishing agreements of the European Union (eu) which sanction overexploitation of fishing grounds. In the agreements, the eu has conveniently exported the problem of overfishing (which led to severe catch restrictions in European waters) to Southern countries.

What is happening at the moment is that while the fish stock of coastal areas of many African countries is being undermined by the fleet of the eu, the local population is not getting a fair share of the profits. It is not only the number of huge foreign trawlers that determines the extent of overfishing, but even the fishing methods that are applied. In many cases, a part of the catch (a good amount of it dead) is dumped back into the sea by the eu fleet for not being of any value. In prawn fishing, as much as 50 to 90 per cent of the catch is thrown back and the seabeds are turned up. This procedure destroys the 'delivery rooms' of several species of fish. The European ships, rather than bringing the fish on land locally to process them, tend to freeze the fish or process them directly on sea. Due to this, participation in any direct economic activity is completely lost to the local fishing industry.

The eu fishing agreements not only violate the Maastricht Treaty which states that the eu must not do anything that is not in conflict with its development policy, but they also violate the agreement of the United Nations Conference on Economic Development, 1992, and the fao's (voluntary) Rule of Conduct for Sensible Fishing.

European ngos, however, together with organisations of traditional fisherfolk from Senegal and Guinea Bissau, hope to accomplish three things. In the first place, they want to reduce the fishing quota and demand more selective methods of fishing. In the second, they demand a bigger role for local fisherfolk and insist that the latter should join the negotiations on new agreements. The zone the fisherfolk are confined to has to be enlarged and more investments in their sector have to be realised. And in the third place, the inspection of the rules have to be intensified. This also means that fishing by foreign trawlers is acceptable only if the local needs of food, work and development are met adequately. The local fisherfolk, in turn, will have to respect a biological minimum standard for the reserves.

That countries in the South can stand up against unjust practices has been proven by Morocco, Mauritania and Namibia. Anticipating a catastrophe in its waters, Morocco has considerably reduced access for European ships; Mauritania has introduced a no-fishing period and the Namibian government has even decided not to sign any agreement with the eu at all. Despite great pressure from the Union, Namibia stuck to its guns to prove that although big money can be tempting, it can also be resisted. And all this is worthwhile when local traditional fisherpeople, especially the women in the trade, are respected and supported, spurring sustainable development for the people and the sea at the same time.

Max van den Berg is the director general of Novib, a Netherlands-based NGO.

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