Biodiversity, Climate Change, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Tierramerica

Heat Rises, Fishing Falls in the Venezuelan Caribbean

Humberto Márquez* - Tierramérica

CARACAS, Oct 27 2010 (IPS) - In the Southern Caribbean, along the Venezuelan coast, fishing is on the decline, surface waters are warming, rivers discharge tonnes of waste into the sea — the waves seem to be licking the wounds left by these phenomena and devastating fishing practices like bottom trawling.

Catching lobsters in Los Roques archipelago, Venezuela.  Credit: Public domain

Catching lobsters in Los Roques archipelago, Venezuela. Credit: Public domain

“Fish catches have already been reduced. The rivers that flow here pollute the sea and the waters are warming, so the fish are following other routes. What we used to catch 15 miles from the coast and six metres deep now we have to seek at 50 to 60 miles out and more than 20 metres deep — and with inadequate boats,” fisherman Daniel Córdoba, from Carenero, 80 kilometres east of Caracas, told Tierramérica.

Venezuela, a nation of 28 million people, produces about 400,000 tonnes of fish annually, according to the Socialist Institute of Fishing and Aquaculture, and has some 30,000 fishers working along its coasts, mostly in small-scale operations.

“A few years ago, along this strip of coastline, on any given day you saw a few dozen boats out fishing. I go out every day, and I think now, at times, there could be as many as a thousand,” Cedrick McGregor, a veteran fisherman of Jamaican origin, told Tierramérica.

Luis Acuña, an expert with the harpoon, agrees with Córdoba and McGregor that “what we used to catch on one or two days of fishing now takes four or five.”

Overfishing — the overexploitation of marine resources — has led to 30 percent of fish, mollusc and crustacean species facing some degree of exhaustion worldwide, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Fifty percent of the populations are already exploited to their upper limits, and just 20 percent are caught below their sustainable capacity.

“There is no resource that can withstand an increase in the fishing effort like that of recent decades. It is a global problem. On the coasts of Newfoundland (Canada) and the Mediterranean, overfishing has left less than 10 percent of the known resources,” Juan José Cárdenas, a biologist with the U.S.-based non-governmental organisation The Nature Conservancy, told Tierramérica.

In Venezuela, “no fishing ground can take even one kilogram more of fishing, and the catch volumes and economic circuits are compromised as a result of the fish population decline,” said Cárdenas.

Increased fishing has also meant practices like bottom trawling “which greatly deteriorated the marine depths, but the president and, shall we say, the revolution took this problem into account and now they return with species like the seabass and anchovies, which years ago didn’t have very good catches,” said another fisher from the area, Román Blanco.

In a 2001 decree, President Hugo Chávez banned trawler fishing less than six miles from the continental coast or less than 10 miles from island coasts, and in 2008 the fishing technique was completely eliminated, affecting some 270 boats that caught about 10 percent of the fish consumed in Venezuela.

“Bottom trawling was a plague. It stirred up the sea floor, hurt the coral, erased species like mullet and moonfish from the shores and now we have to search for them in harder trips, 45 to 50 miles out to sea,” said fisherman Germán Curbelo.

And there are other problems. Biologist Evelyn Pallotta noted, “not only are fish populations reduced by inappropriate exploitation, but also by contamination. This area (the Carenero plains) has seven wastewater treatment plants, but none of them work.”

“All of the liquid effluent — from agriculture, industry, households, tourist sites — is untreated and ends up in the rivers that flow to the Caribbean, or directly in the sea, as contaminants that are dispersed by the marine currents,” Pallotta explained to Tierramérica.

The River Tuy flows into the sea after one of its tributaries, the Guaire, crosses through Caracas and takes up sewage and industrial waste, said Pallotta, head of environment for the northern state of Miranda.

The production of carbon dioxide and other gases, which in contact with the Caribbean acidify its water, in addition to warming global temperatures, generate chemical changes, which damage coral reefs that are habitat for many marine species.

“The conditions are altered in which, for example, the sardine reproduces, which relies on plankton in quantity and quality. Its larval growth is changed. The sardine is a forage species, and becomes food for larger species, thus sustaining the food chain,” said Nature Conservancy expert Cárdenas.

The waters of the Southern Caribbean “about 10 years ago were cold during nine months each year, and that allowed in a lot of sardines and other species. But now the cold period is six months, seven maximum,” said fisher Curbelo.

“To top it all is that sometimes you leave the nets set up at night, and when you go the next day the water has warmed, the fish have been cooked in the net and are useless. That didn’t happen 10 or 15 years ago,” agreed colleague Aníbal Chiramo.

There is consensus among experts and fishers in calling for government aid to update fishing vessels to make them safer and to change fishing methods to make them more precise, with less by-catch. They also want to see fish collection sites developed, with refrigeration and transport to improve access to consumers.

Also needed, said Pallotta, “is to attack contamination at its roots, improve the measurement, assessment and regulation systems, and ban polluting activities that don’t have waste treatment programmes.”

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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