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BIODIVERSITY: Overfishing Threatens Vietnam’s Marine Life

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, May 19 2005 (IPS) - ”Never in my life have I seen these prices for anchovies!” exclaimed Sau Tinh, the owner of Thanh Quoc – a factory producing fermented fish sauce at Phu Quoc Island in Kien Giang Province.

She was speaking to IPS ahead of International Day of Biological Diversity, which falls on May 22.

Anchovies are the basic ingredients needed to churn out the famous Phu Quoc fish sauce now available in many supermarkets in Europe and the United States that cater to the local Vietnamese communities there.

This year, Sau Tinh has little choice but to pay 4,000 dong (25 U.S. cents) for a kilo of anchovies, double of what she forked out last year, if she wants to keep her production of Phu Quoc fish sauce at current levels for export overseas. And the factory owner said she considers herself lucky for being able to find enough anchovy stock for the year.

Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island situated in the gulf of Thailand just off the southern coast of Vietnam, and is famed for making the best fish sauce – or ‘nuoc mam’ as it known in Vietnamese – in the world.

Although fermented fish sauce can be found elsewhere in South-east Asia – in Thailand it is known as ‘nam pla’ – Phu Quoc producers use only long-jawed anchovies, eschewing their competitors’ mix of a variety of types of fish. In recognition of its quality and unique manufacturing process, the island’s ‘nuoc man’ was given a certified label in June 2001 by the Vietnamese government, guaranteeing its origin.

Fame of the Phu Quoc fermented fish sauce has prompted hoards of businesses to enter the market, some even from other provinces – all of them seeking the long-jawed anchovies.

Because of overfishing to meet the demands of the new ‘nuoc man’ factories, local stocks of Phu Quoc’s anchovies have fallen drastically.

According to Phan Ngoc Vu, vice director of the Kien Giang’s Department of Marine Resources, in the past two years unsustainable and illegal exploitation has reduced the population of anchovies by half.

But anchovies are not the only marine resources to suffer from overexploitation.

According to Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Fisheries Nguyen Viet Thang, some 37 species of fish, five species of shrimp, 27 species of molluscs and some other sea creatures like marine turtles, dugong and dolphins are on the verge of extinction.

Equally threatened by human intervention are Vietnam’s marine ecosystems.

Throughout the country, unsustainable fishing techniques are overexploiting marine resources. Cyanide and dynamite are both used widely to catch fish.

Cyanide has extremely detrimental effects on all living organisms in the surrounding environment and dynamite does irreparable damage to coral reef systems.

While information on Vietnam’s marine biodiversity is incomplete, 11,000 species have so far been recorded in Vietnam’s marine and coastal waters.

There are more than 2,000 fish species and approximately 130 of these have economic value. Coral reef exists along the length of the coastline from around the rocky islands Halong Bay, Paracel Island (Hoang Sa) and Spratly Islands (Truong Sa) in the North, rocky promontories of the central coastline, and around Con Dao Island and Phu Quoc Islands in the South. Some 350 species of hard coral have been recorded in Vietnamese waters so far.

Another factor adding to the problem of loss of marine biodiversity is the increase in the number of fishermen.

From 1990 to 2004, the number of fishermen in the country has almost doubled, rising from 270,600 to 550,000 in 2004. Due to their lack of capital to buy deep-sea equipment, most of these fishermen stay close to shore and use small mesh fishnets – both of which deplete marine resources fast.

Also over the past two decades, the country’s fleet of fishing vessels has increased dramatically both in number and fishing capacity. At a recent conference organised by the Fisheries Ministry, co-sponsored by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and Denmark’s Fisheries Sector Programme Support, it was revealed that Vietnam’s domestic fishing fleet capacity has increased by 6.5 times and is now able to bring in about two million tonnes of seafood a year.

But these catches, unfortunately, are from coastal waters less than 50 meters in depth – where fishermen often destroy many kinds of marine life, including breeding stocks and fish fry. Recent oil spills from vessels have also caused great concern as they seriously pollute the sea and destroy marine flora and fauna.

To divert fishermen from coastal areas, the government in 1996 launched a national deep- sea fisheries development programme to ensure the supply of fish to the country’s processing plants while reducing commercial fishing in coastal waters.

In 2002, Hanoi also approved plans to set up marine protected areas (MPA). Some 16 sites had been identified as worthy of protection as marine reserves.

Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment Pham Khoi Nguyen said the fisheries industry would reduce the number of small-sized fishing vessels and develop offshore fishing.

But to date, all these efforts have made little impact in protecting Vietnam’s marine biodiversity.

Of the 16 sites identified as possible MPAs, only the Hon Mun Islands off the coast of the central province of Khanh Hoa has received funding from the World Bank.

The much-acclaimed deep sea-fishing programme has harvested only marginal results after nine years of implementation.

The local industry is still held back by inadequate supply of experienced and skilled fishermen, a lack of deep sea fishing boats, and ineffective post-catch processing equipment and technology.

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