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Misregulation Aiding Plunder of Fish, Other Resources

Matthew O. Berger

WASHINGTON, Jun 2 2010 (IPS) - The resources society derives from nature have been horribly mismanaged and this will lead to the children of the world’s poorest people remaining in poverty, according to Paul Collier. The easiest of these resources to regulate is fish, but we have not even managed to get that right, he said.

The Oxford professor and development expert spoke Tuesday in Washington about his new book, “The Plundered Planet: Why We Must – and How We Can – Manage Nature for Global Prosperity”.

One of its chapters discusses the failure of governments to effectively regulate fishing industries – which he says is a microcosm of the missteps we have taken in the management of natural resources.

“If you unleash that [modern fishing] technology with no limit there will be no more fish,” Collier said. He explained the beneficial role of regulation, namely “rents” that make fish more expensive than it costs to catch them.

But the proceeds of those rents have been misdirected, going right back to the fishermen and allowing them to increase their capacity for catching fish even further – thus leading to the ever-increasing plunder of fish stocks.

The same is true with other resources, he contends – such as forests, oil and minerals.

Collier says these resources and the revenue they generate should be conserved for future generations, but that corrupt governance and the question of ownership of transnational resources all too often makes this politically impossible.

Of these transnational natural resources, he thinks fish stocks should be the easiest to regulate effectively, largely because the fishing industry is not nearly as large and powerful as others, like the fossil fuel industry.

“If we can’t get fish right, what hope is there for larger industries” that have far more revenue and thus far more lobbying power and clout with policymakers, he said. They will simply be “lobbying for continued plunder”.

As in his previous book, “The Bottom Billion”, where Collier sought to find practical ways to bring the poorest sixth of humanity out of poverty, “The Plundered Planet” presents several practical ways to ensure future generations are not condemned to poverty – or to empty seas.

Tuesday, he cited Kuwait as an alternative to the plunder now, pay later model. He noted how the oil-rich the country sets aside some revenue from its oil reserves in a trust fund earmarked for future generations.

Of course, not all countries would be willing to take those measures in the name of future generations. It is up to citizens, then, to keep an eye on their governments and call for the responsible use of resources, Collier said.

Thus, the very thing that allows the excessive plunder of resources like fish in the first place – technology – can be used to reverse it. He believes that informed societies will make better decisions and that when it comes to informing people “technology is on our side” in getting accurate information out there and making sure it reaches as many people as quickly as possible.

Fish stocks: A plundered case in point

In the case of fish stocks, the clock is ticking.

Rents are crucial to knocking up the price of a resource that would otherwise be decimated, but despite these rents fish stocks are widely decimated anyway. The problem, says Collier, is what happens to the proceeds from these rents.

He contends they should go to the international community, seeing as most major fish stocks cross national borders – maybe to help fund the World Food Programme. But the money actually ends up back on the fishing boats.

The global fishing industry is worth about 85 billion dollars a year. Collier estimates that at least 20 billion of that is rents. Globally, however, there are about 27 billion dollars in subsidies going to the fishermen each year, according to a U.N. Environment Programme report released May 17 – even more than the amount of rents taken in.

That money, contends Collier, is going toward further expanding the already overly large fishing fleets. Indeed, past studies have estimated that the capacity of the global fishing industry to catch fish is twice as large as is actually needed. This has led to massively depleted seas – to the tune of almost 30 percent of fish stocks now deemed “collapsed”, or yielding less than 10 percent of their former ability, according to the May UNEP report.

Subsidies are known to exacerbate that – even when direct subsidies are eliminated, indirect ones like fuel discounts, persist. A study commissioned by the Pew Environment Group in March traced the effect of subsidies allotted to EU fisheries between 2006 and 2009. It found 29 percent funded measures that would amp up fishing while just 17 percent went to measures known to support sustainable fisheries – the original intent of the funding.

The European Commission said last April that 88 percent of EU fish stocks are overfished.

UNEP identifies just eight billion dollars of the 27 billion dollars of global subsidies as “good”. The remainder contributes to the over-exploitation of fish stocks.

It recommends taking 13 to 20 million boats out of the water and redirecting a portion of those subsidy dollars – eight billion – to retraining up to 22 million fishers for other work.

In Collier’s words, when it comes to fish – the primary source of protein for almost one billion people – “It’s very stark that we are misregulating. We’re failing to regulate.”

The global policy on fish is massively failing, he said. “We’re not even making rich fishermen.”

His point may be catching on. In releasing the report, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner echoed Collier’s points on plunder and mismanagement.

“Fisheries across the world are being plundered, or exploited at unsustainable rates. It is a failure of management of what will prove to be monumental proportions unless addressed,” Steiner said.

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