Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-CUBA: Making Sustainable Fishing Possible

Patricia Grogg

CAIBARIÉN, Cuba, Jun 8 2005 (IPS) - Pánfilo Aborrezco knows the secrets of the sea like he knows the back of his own hand. "I’m 71 years old, and I started to go out fishing with my father when I was seven. I wouldn’t know how to do anything else," he says.

As he speaks, the old fisherman – his skin tanned like leather by the Caribbean sun – gazes out towards the waters that no longer offer up the bounties of the past. "For me, fishing isn’t work. I do it to pass the time, and to keep myself in shape," he declares.

Fishing is the main economic activity in Caibarién, a town of 40,000 on the north coast of the west-central Cuban province of Villa Clara. But the sea does not yield the resources that it once did, due in part to over-fishing and the use of techniques and equipment that are harmful to the environment.

According to experts, the use of fine-meshed nets and other detrimental methods have had a marked impact on biological productivity, and are the direct cause of environmental degradation and a decrease in fish stocks.

"Yes, there are fewer fish, but I don’t think it’s because of over-fishing or the way the fish are caught. I think it has to do with the environment," Aborrezco told IPS.

The veteran fisherman is not far off the mark. Specialists say that in addition to over-fishing, factors like pollution, a rise in water temperature, and an increase in salinity, due to a diminished influx of fresh water, have also contributed to depleting stocks.

Aborrezco does not agree with the decision to gradually phase out the use of the "chinchorro" net, which will be completely prohibited for commercial fishing by 2007, and is already banned for sport fishing.

The chinchorro is a huge, funnel-shaped trawling net that scoops up everything in its path. It can be cast between two boats and covers an area of almost two kilometres, yielding between three and 20 tons with each use.

Because of their huge size, these nets cause considerable damage to the marine habitat, destroying the shelters of invertebrates and fish, stirring up sediment, and provoking stress even for the creatures that escape being caught.

Between 1995 and 1998, the chinchorro boats of the Caibarién fishing fleet accounted for 44 percent of the total catch, with only three or four boats in operation.

"If they take away the chinchorro, it’s going to affect the fishing industry," warned Aborrezco.

The regulations adopted to promote greater sustainability of the fishing sector and protect ecosystems include the creation of marine reserves where fishing is banned, which has reduced the productivity of the Caibarién fleet to less than half of previous levels.

Fishing is now banned along part of the coast of Sancti Spíritus (the province next to Villa Clara), as well as the area one km north and one km south of the causeway that links Caibarién to Santa María cay.

"The ban includes all of the cays off Santa María. This is an area that is especially rich in fish, and now no one can work there, and they haven’t given any reasons for these measures," Aborrezco maintained.

Studies conducted by the Oceanographic Institute of the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment indicate that the first signs of over-fishing became evident in Cuba in the 1970s.

In the 1980s, a more elaborate and stricter system of fishing regulations had contributed to a certain degree of recovery, but other problems began to emerge, including the degradation of coastal lagoons as a result of pollution.

These lagoons are the meeting point between land and sea, and are fed by both fresh and salt water. They also serve as the breeding ground for a large number of commercial fish species.

In the case of Buena Vista Bay, in Caibarién, the main source of pollution is the sugar mill in the neighbouring municipality of Remedios, whose waste flows out to sea along the Guaní River.

In times of drought, the waste accumulates on the river bed until the first rains wash it out in one fell swoop towards the bay, a shallow area made even more vulnerable by the surrounding cays. This sudden influx of pollution is severely detrimental to marine life.

Buena Vista Bay is home to numerous commercially valuable species and a spawning ground for fish and crustaceans, as well as a nesting site for seabirds.

This ecosystem forms part of the Sabana-Camagüey archipelago, which stretches from the province of Matanzas, 100 km west of Havana, to the province of Camagüey, 530 km from the capital.

A wide-reaching programme for sustainable development and the protection of biodiversity along this entire coastal area includes the study and proposal of alternatives to foster the sustainability of the fishing industry.

Alfredo Nieto, the coordinator of this project for Villa Clara at the state-run Centre for Environmental Studies and Services (CESAM) told IPS that the alternative options include the cultivation of sponges and oysters.

"The goal is to stop the decline in species, promote their recovery and begin to farm any other possible species," he added.

The Sabana-Camagüey Integrated Coastal Management Programme is funded by the Cuban government, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other institutions.

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