Trawling the seas for catastrophe

Date May 31, 2009

Fishermen unloading a tuna catch at Balis Jimbaran fishing village. Overfishing and abuse of the marine ecosystem are adversely affecting a vast region in South-east Asia known as the Coral Triangle. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Fishermen unloading a tuna catch at Bali's Jimbaran fishing village. Overfishing and abuse of the marine ecosystem are adversely affecting a vast region in South-east Asia known as the Coral Triangle. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Marine world faces collapse due to unbridled and destructive fishing

BANGKOK: – In the humid tropical dawn, the boats begin to arrive, unloading their plastic baskets of fish, shrimp, squid and crabs.

Wiry tattooed men sort them, working among slabs of gleaming ice. Many of the fish are still flipping about; the crabs are tightly bound with plastic string. They have been caught by the fishermen – or have come from trawlers lying offshore.

Steel hooks are used to drag the baskets up to the Mahachai market, where they join fat prawns from farms along the coast. Much of the landed catch is bought by seafood processors and restaurant owners; Mahachai feeds Thailand’s seafood industry and the voracious Bangkok market. Thailand is the world’s largest producer of canned seafood.

Sitting on his boat after unloading two baskets of fish, squid and shrimp – the product of two whole days at sea – 46-year-old father of four Sayan Taengpoo, a fisherman for more than 20 years, says industrial development in the region has worsened water quality, and catches are down from 10 years ago.

An increase in market prices of seafood had been offset by higher increases in the cost of fuel and maintenance. It all combined to make his job harder, he said.

Mr Viroj Limsnit, managing director of major exporter Narong Seafood, whose office is near the market, said the catch has been declining.

‘The simple reason is overcatching in the past and lack of control over natural resources in Thai waters,’ he said.

The relatively shallow Gulf of Thailand is one of the most heavily fished seas in the world. Thai fishermen have, over the last 15 years, had to venture to Oman, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia and Vietnam under fishing rights licences.

‘Fees keep on increasing, and implementation of strict rules and regulation makes our foreign fishing more difficult,’ said Mr Viroj. ‘In 2007, Indonesia stopped issuing fishing licences to foreign vessels.’

The problem cuts across the region – and indeed the world. Across the planet’s seas, mechanised fishing vessels are now estimated to number about 2.1 million, the nationality of many thousands of them listed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as ‘unknown’.

Industrial-scale trawlers have devastated the seas, severely affecting the livelihood of tens of millions of local small-scale fishermen.

In parts of the Philippines whose seas have been overfished by both Filipinos and foreigners, these fishermen bring in a paltry 3,000 pesos (S$92) a month.

Across the world, trawlers are chasing fewer and fewer fish. And as the large in-demand marketable fish disappear, sea creatures lower down the food chain initially thrive because of fewer predators.

But long lines and nets, often hauled by several ships, rake the seabed indiscriminately, scooping up every living creature.

For every kilo that reaches markets like Thailand’s Mahachai, more than 10kg – and sometimes up to 100kg – has been thrown away as unmarketable ‘bycatch’.

‘The sea bottom has probably suffered considerable damage, made even worse by the disposal of large quantities of unwanted catch,’ a recently released report on Indonesia’s Arafura sea noted.

Shallow tropical waters suffer from the twin pressures of a large and growing population of local fishermen, and industrial-scale fishing, much of it unregulated.

Indonesia loses an estimated US$2 billion (S$3 billion) a year to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

The most recent State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report of the FAO estimates that over half a billion people are involved in the fishing and aquaculture industries, mostly in Asia.

Worldwide, fish provides around 15 per cent of average per capita animal protein intake. In many small developing nations as well as in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, French Guiana, the Gambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Indonesia, it is as high as 50 per cent.

But scientific studies have determined that the marine environment is in a state of collapse. If immediate measures are not taken, within about 50 years – the lifetime of today’s children and teenagers – the seafood spreads we are used to will be reduced to a few artificially farmed species and lots of jellyfish.

In 2006, Dr Sylvia Earle, who this month won the coveted Rachel Carson award honouring pioneering conservationists, warned of an unfolding ‘conservation tragedy of epic proportions’.

‘We have turned to the deep oceans in our increasingly relentless and destructive pursuit of the dwindling supply of seafood,’ she wrote.

In February this year, she said: ‘In 50 years, we have eaten more than 90 per cent of the big fish in the sea. Nearly half of the coral reefs have disappeared.’

European seas are worse off than those in Asia. And just as Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese trawlers plunder the open ocean as their own seas lie empty, Europe has been exporting the destruction of bottom-trawling fishing to African waters.

Stockholm-based Isabella Loevin, author of the book Silent Sea – who is running for election to the European Parliament next month under the Green Party banner, told The Straits Times on the phone: ‘Twenty per cent of the European Union’s subsidies for fishermen goes to buying fishing rights in Third World countries, for instance in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal.

‘We used to have a fisheries agreement with Senegal up to 2006, and stopped because the waters were overfished, there was no fish left to catch.

‘The root of the fisheries agreements is the fact that we have been overfishing our own waters for decades. At the same time, you have a growing appetite for fish in Europe. Now, one quarter of the fish that comes to Europe, comes from these agreements.

‘There is legal fishing, but who knows how many are fishing illegally, because these countries have no capacity in terms of coast guard or surveillance.’

Bangkok-based coastal ecologist Gaya Sriskanthan said: ‘It’s all down to governments, enforcement and political will; we need some sort of rigorous global fisheries mechanism.’

It is not just an overfishing catastrophe. The oceans are littered with discarded nets and garbage; in one place in the Pacific floats a mass of plastic waste 10m deep and larger than France.

Pollution and global warming are acidifying the sea, killing corals.

And as the fish die out, the seafood industry, in an increasingly vicious circle, turns to the coast to cultivate prawns – in the process destroying mangroves which, together with coral reefs, are among the most productive ecosystems on Earth.

‘Our fate and (that of) the ocean, are one,’ said Dr Earle.

‘Nothing else will matter if we fail to protect the ocean. For the children of today, for tomorrow’s child, as never again, now is the time.’

Source: The Straits Times 30 May 2009

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