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EL SALVADOR: Small-Scale Fishers Want a Slice of the Sea

Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, Jan 5 2011 (IPS) - For the third time in 10 years, small-scale fishers in El Salvador are trying to get Congress to modify the country’s fishing law, to create a five-mile exclusion zone along the coast where the industrial fleet would be banned from fishing.

That demand has them at loggerheads with large national companies that fish for shrimp in the area off the coast of this Central American country.

The trawl nets used by the shrimp boats capture juveniles of different species before they have been able to breed, the small-scale fishers complain.

The request was set forth in November by representatives of the Federación de Cooperativas de Producción y Servicios Pesqueros La Paz (Fecopaz) and the Federación de Asociaciones Cooperativas Pesqueras Artesanales de El Salvador (Facopades), two federations of fishers’ cooperatives.

A proposed reform of the 2001 law on fishing and aquaculture, presented by lawmakers of the governing left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), is now in the legislative committee on the environment and climate change, which is due to discuss it this month.

Some 30,000 small-scale fishers work along the Salvadoran coast, according to estimates by the federations that represent them.

At the same time, around 20 companies operate 35 shrimp boats, in an industry that has been in decline since 2003.

That year, exports totalled 10.8 million dollars. But they plunged to five million in 2004, and to just 800,000 dollars in 2007, according to the Central Reserve Bank.

The Cámara Salvadoreña de Pesca y Acuicultura (Campac), the shrimp industry association, says 70 percent of the shrimp fished are caught by small-scale fishers and the rest by the large companies. But artisanal fishers say they catch just 20 percent of the total.

Nearly all of the shrimp caught is sold on the domestic market, due to the collapse in shrimp exports.

“We want the lawmakers to legislate for the majority, who are the artisanal fishers, and not for a minority of industrial-scale fishing companies,” Norberto Moreno, president of the Asociación de Cooperativas de Producción Pesquera y Servicios Múltiples San Diego (Acoppsemdi), another umbrella group of fishing cooperatives, told IPS.

Industrial-scale fishing was controlled, years ago, by a handful of powerful families, like the Baldocchis and the Wrights. But after demand from the United States plummeted, the boom came to an end and the families began pulling out of the business.

Trawl nets were banned by the 2001 law, but only in marine reserves.

The main complaint of the small-scale fishers is the high level of bycatch in shrimp trawls, which hurt biodiversity as well as the livelihoods of fishermen.

A brochure produced by a 2002-2008 joint Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) programme states that 15-20 million tonnes of bycatch is caught by mixed-species shrimp trawlers annually, and 1.9 million tonnes of bycatch is discarded annually by shrimp trawlers alone.

The programme, “Reduction of Environmental Impact from Tropical Shrimp Trawling through the Introduction of Bycatch Reduction Technologies and Change of Management”, defines bycatch as “anything that a fisher does not intend to catch, including juveniles of commercially-valuable species and biologically-important species,” and defines discards as “the part of the bycatch that is returned to the sea, either dead or alive.”

According to Acoppsemdi’s Moreno, 90 percent of bycatch is discarded by the shrimp boats in El Salvador.

But Campac president Baldemar Arnecke said that on the contrary, 90 percent of the bycatch is used. The FAO/UNEP report says 70 percent is used, globally.

Arnecke said the non-target species are given to the “morrayeros”, small-scale fishers who show up in their small boats to help the large shrimpers, and in exchange are paid with the bycatch, which they later sell in the port.

“We’re talking about 14,000 morrayeros who get the fish, which is food that the population buys later at low prices,” Arnecke told IPS.

“We aren’t the ‘bad guys’. In fact, we’re a global example in the use of the Turtle Excluder Device,” which allows turtles to escape after they are captured in shrimp nets, he said.

Arnecke added that if a law is passed forcing the shrimp boats to stay out of the five-mile strip of ocean where the shrimp are found, the industry will go under, affecting not only the 4,000 direct jobs it generates but also the 2,000 people involved in processing the shrimp, who are mainly women heads of households.

It would also hurt the 14,000 morrayeros and the 25,000 other artisanal fishers who are given bait fish for free by the shrimp boats, he said.

Some countries have divided their fishing zones. Chile, for example, established a five-mile zone for the exclusive use of small-scale fishers. But that South American country also has problems of overfishing in most of its fisheries.

“Of course it makes sense to protect that area, which is inhabited by shrimp and other important species, because it would ensure the sustainability of the fisheries,” Ricardo Navarro, director of the Salvadoran Centre for Appropriate Technology (CESTA), told IPS.

Arnecke is opposed to a five-mile exclusion zone, but said a one-mile zone would be viable.

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