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ENVIRONMENT: Subsidies in North Help Drain Oceans of Fish

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Jun 4 2003 (IPS) - Fishing subsidies in the world’s rich countries and development that pushes poor farmers off their land are two reasons why the world’s oceans have been over-harvested, leading to a drastic drop in fish stocks, say experts.

Global fisheries subsidies vary between 14 billion U.S. dollars and 20 billion dollars annually, with Europe and Japan leading the way, according to the World Bank. By some estimates, government payments account for one dollar in four in the fishery sector.

The World Wide Fund for Nature, among other groups, has argued for years that these subsidies play a significant role in declining fish stocks.

At the same time, from western Africa, to the west coast of South America, to southeast Asia, farmers are being pushed off their land and into fishing because it is a means of survival that does not require a lot of assets, says Daniel Pauly, a leading fisheries expert based in Canada.

”We’re over-fishing by a factor of two or three,” he says in an interview. ”Some marine species are on the brink of extinction and if we don’t make major changes there will be little left in the ocean but plankton,” added Pauly, who worked for many years at the International Centre for Living Aquatic Resource Management (ICLARM) in Manila, Philippines.

The situation is now so dire that fishing should be banned in up to one-half of the world’s oceans for the next 10 to 20 years, he suggests.

A report that made headlines around the world last month said that commercial fishing has reduced populations of every species of large fish on the globe by more than 90 per cent, putting a vital source of food protein in peril – especially for populations in developing countries – threatening the livelihood of millions of small fishers and unbalancing marine ecosystems.

”From giant blue marlin to mighty blue-fin tuna, and from tropical groupers to Antarctic cod, industrial fishing has scoured the global ocean,” said Ransom Myers, a world leading fisheries biologist based at Dalhousie University in Canada and one of the report’s authors.

”We’ve known about collapse of certain fish species and some fisheries, but this study is the first good global overview,” says Meryl Williams, director general of the World Fish Center in Penang, Malaysia. The Center, formerly known as ICLARM, is an international fisheries research body and a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Since 1950, with the onset of industrialised fishing, stocks have been so efficiently harvested that it takes just 10 to 15 years to deplete any fish community by 90 percent, the Canadian study found. And the oceans have been so exploited that only 10 percent of all large fish, both open ocean species – including tuna, swordfish, marlin – and the large ground fish – such as cod, halibut, skates and flounder – are left.

Myers and colleagues spent 10 years collecting, verifying and assembling information from all major fisheries in the world. Their work advances a 1994 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate that almost 70 percent of fish stocks were over-fished.

One billion people rely on fish as a source of animal protein and 150 million people depend on fisheries for employment, most of them in the South, Williams told IPS.

”Reducing the amounts of fish caught in countries like Bangladesh, the Philippines and Malaysia will be very difficult.”

But drastic reductions in the world’s fish haul are urgently needed.

Financing by the North in the 1960s and ’70s helped the South build up its industrial fleets, which accelerated the fish stock declines, according to Pauly. As a result, the South accounts for more than one-half of the global fish catch, most of which is exported. By comparison, 95 percent of rice is consumed in the country where it is grown.

Exports and increasing scarcity have made fish very expensive in relative terms, too costly to remain a staple food in many southern countries.

”We in the North don’t see the lack of fish in the south,” Pauly says.

Tensions are high in many fisheries. ”There is already tremendous conflict at every level; it can get quite violent,” says Williams. Control of fisheries and fishing rights are major issues at global and local levels and will be difficult to solve, she adds.

One global issue Williams would like tackled immediately is fishing subsidies, including assistant to shipbuilders at a time when most experts agree the world’s fleet is far too large. ”The last thing the fisheries need is more fishing boats,” says Williams.

Fewer boats and fewer fishers is what are needed, agrees Pauly, along with alternative employment. ”Fishing should not be encouraged as a way of living, and we need to drag kids out of fishing,” he says.

Unfortunately, fishing is what Pauly calls an occupation of last resort. Throughout the tropics, landless and jobless people turn to fishing in hopes of making a living. Not being from traditional fishing communities and lacking skills, these ex-farmers are likely to use illegal gear, including dynamite, to fill their nets, he says.

According to Pauly the only way to prevent a complete collapse of the world’s fisheries is to create protected regions, including breeding areas, which would be off-limits to all fishing.

But how big and how long?

”One-third to one-half of the world’s oceans,” he says. ”These areas would be closed for the next one or two decades. Then we could safely catch as much fish as we are today without endangering the stocks.”

Currently, only a very small fraction of the seas are protected. ”We need to change the notion that anyone can fish anywhere, anytime, for anything,” Pauly says, pointing out that hunting animals is restricted virtually everywhere on the planet.

While Williams is hopeful that environmentally sustainable aquaculture will meet some of the enormous fish protein shortfall, she agrees that large reserves and international action are needed.

”Humans have had an enormous impact on the biodiversity of every continent,” she adds. ”The same thing is happening to the world’s oceans.”

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