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WORLD: Fishy Fishing Practices Threaten the Environment

Hilaire Avril

PARIS, Aug 5 2009 (IPS) - For years, fishing communities along Africa’s 30,000 km-long coastline have been raising the alarm on the depletion of their fish stocks, to no avail. Over- fishing by foreign vessels has been wiping out the livelihood of West African fishers, contributing to desperate migration attempts into Europe.

But this could only be the tip of the iceberg. Emerging evidence suggests current fishing practices increasingly threaten global fish stocks, not just African ones, with complete extinction.

“The End of The Line”, Rupert Murray’s recent British documentary addressing the impact of industrial fishing, shows how catastrophically unsustainable the current trend is. Quoting research by Dalhousie University in Canada, the film warns that at the current pace all the planet’s fish will have been caught by 2050.

“Fish stocks have a biological threshold beyond which they are not able to reconstitute, and we are only beginning to understand how important it is to have fish in the sea,” says Murray.

“In addition to the issues of food and livelihoods, it was discovered in January that oceans need fish excrement otherwise they are too acidic to process carbon dioxide and limit global warming,” he explains.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, 80 percent of the planet’s fish stocks are already fully exploited or in decline.

Although fishing is a regulated industry, supervision systems are weak and inadequately enforced.

Ever-larger industrial fishing trawlers take to the seas for months at a time, sailing thousands of miles from their national waters and authorities. Many evade international and local regulations, fishing inside protected Inshore Exclusion Zones and exceeding authorised catch quotas.

The European Union (EU) negotiates fishing agreements with other countries, compensating nations which grant access to their territorial waters to EU- certified trawlers.

Certification demands that fishing vessels abide by the terms of fishing agreements (catch quotas, designated fishing zones) and EU regulations on hygiene. Only certified vessels can export fish to the EU, the world’s largest seafood market.

But a recent investigation in West Africa shows that over-fishing is largely due to “pirate” fishers which are EU-certified but abuse the system.

The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a London-based non- governmental organisation, has documented how weak enforcement of European regulations allows vessels to continue depleting the waters of Sierra Leone and the western coast of Africa.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, where illegal, unregulated and unauthorised fishing comprises an average 37 percent of catches, the total value of illegal fish caught is estimated at one billion dollars per year but the true figure could be far higher,” according to the EJF report.

“Trawlers over-fishing under European licenses take advantage of the weak enforcement capacity of some governments,” Duncan Copeland, who researched the report, explains.

“The Sierra Leone authorities, for instance, have a single boat capable of inspecting trawlers off-shore and it was recently docked, missing spare parts,” he says.

Many trawlers exceed their licenses and disregard health standards. EJF has published evidence of vessels, whose markings were carefully concealed, fishing within wildlife reserves and zones restricted to local artisanal fishermen, sometimes running them over.

Crews work in unsafe conditions and are paid a pittance, occasionally in fish.

Inspections in European harbours are sometimes evaded by trans-shipping the fish to other vessels while at sea, or by off-loading them in ports of convenience. Las Palmas, on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria, is a port known for lax controls allowing such fish to enter the EU.

“The EU is therefore perpetuating a situation whereby virtually none of the economic benefits of fisheries actually accrue in Sierra Leone, while simultaneously enabling illegally-caught fish to enter the EU,” according to Copeland.

“Even when the system is enforced, there are few deterrents to over-fishing. Sierra Leone recently caught a Korean ship registered with the EU and fined it 30,000 dollars, but this amounts to confiscating the fishing gear. It doesn’t impair the vessel’s fishing capacity in a lasting way,” he explains.

“The ship’s real owners are rarely known, let alone prosecuted; their local agent might be brought to court but in some West African countries these proceedings sometimes run into governance issues,” he adds.

Several EU member states, where many vessels are based, are less than eager to monitor illegal fishing outside Europe.

“Spain, with the largest fishing fleet in the world and substantial influence on E.U. fishing policy, has a history of turning a blind eye to pirate fishing,” says Copeland. “Italy has also made very little effort and is notorious for over- fishing, even in its national waters,” he adds.

The Pew Environment Group and EU Transparency, two European policy watchdogs, launched in June, a website that tracks the largest recipients of European fishing subsidies.

Spain consistently tops the charts, raking in almost half of all subsidies between 1994 and 2006. Despite excess capacity, most of these subsidies have gone towards building new ships.

“Brussels (home to the European Commission) limits the number of boats allowed to fish in foreign waters and import their catch in the EU,” says a French fisheries policy expert who declined to be named.

“If the fish is caught in violation of European environmental and hygiene standards, the EU can ban their import. It has happened in the past. But the system is bypassed by private, often Spanish interests.

“Some Galician ship-owners have been known to commission South American boats to fish over the maximum quotas their own vessels have to respect,” he explains.

Copeland points out that a “the other big issue is flags of convenience, where European owners register their vessels in foreign countries with looser regulations. The Spanish and Taiwanese are the largest owners of ships using flags of convenience.”

But despite increasingly alarming figures, “it is not too late to turn the tide,” says film director Rupert Murray, whose documentary was mentioned several times in the recent House of Commons debate on the new British Marine Bill.

“Supermarkets in the United Kingdom have started changing their sourcing policy, and labels now appear on fish products,” he argues.

The EU plans on reforming its fishing standards for 2010. But even if the promising new regulation EC 1005/2008 is adopted, its effect on “pirate” fishing will depend on enforcement efforts.

“This is a problem we can and must solve. We have the tools to turn it around,” insists Murray.

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