FISHING OUT AQUATIC DIVERSITY
Overfishing, an indisputable reality
The world-wide coverage a few months ago of the capture of the Spanish freezer trawler 'Estai' by Canadian coastal guards as it fished for Greenland halibut in international waters, has drawn public attention to the increasing international conflicts over marine living resources. Most of these conflicts are rooted in the fact that fish is a dwindling resource due to the explosive growth of the amount of fish which is being pulled out of the water.
Since the late 40s marine fish landings (the amount of fish brought ashore) have increased almost fivefold from around 18 million tones to over 86 million tonnes in 1989. The spectacular growth in catches resulted from technological innovation, greater accessibility to fish resources and low fuel prices. It derived from a basic assumption that has proved to be dangerous: the notion of the unlimited marine living resources as humankind's pantry. This assumption survived until the 1970s and, unfortunately, still seems to be alive today in the minds of many managers, scientists, shipowners and fishermen alike.
There are clear signs that the current situation is far from sustainable. In a report issued in June 1994, the FAO points out that 69% of the global fish stocks for which assessments are available, are considered either fully exploited, overfished, depleted or slowly recovering from depletion. This figure masks regional differences: in the Northern Pacific, nearly 100% of the studied fish stocks are in those categories, and more than 60% in the Eastern Atlantic. By 1992, FAO had recorded 16 major fishery species whose global catch had declined by more than 50% over the previous three decades. Overall nine of the world's 17 major fishing grounds are now in precipitous decline, and four are "fished out" totally from a commercial point of view.
This situation is reflected in the increasing difficulty to keep up with the current fish landings. Since 1989 the growth of total landings started declining, and by the early 1990s they started showing a decreasing trend. The message is clear: under current exploitation patterns we simply do not leave enough fish in the water to regenerate their stocks. Unless some drastic measures are taken, we will see a further decline in the amount of fish that can be brought ashore.
All this happens despite -- or perhaps better: because of -- a tremendous increase in the size of the global fishing fleet. Between 1970 and 1989, fishing fleets grew at twice the rate of fish landings. In 1993 the FAO estimated that there were 1 million large-scale (more than 24m long) and 2 million small-scale fishing boats operating around the world. To some the solution to overfishing is simply the reduction of the amount of boats out there -- and, as will be seen below, preferably the smaller ones. But the international fisheries scene is not that simple. A crucial factor in overfishing is technology. Large modern fishing vessels -- most of them controlled by large transnational corporations -- started incorporating improved self positioning, fish detection, fish aggregation, fish catching and on-board fish preservation technology. This allowed them to become more efficient hunting machines competing for scarcer fish. Another factor is the increasing internationalisation of fisheries, turning fish into a post-GATT international commodity that increasingly features in import and export statistics. Yet another one is the policy of many nations to subsidise, at whatever cost, their national fleets, in a race to continue the depletion of marine biological resources.
Growing fleets, dwindling resources and huge losses of capital have characterised the fishing industry. The FAO calculates the overall losses in 1989 amounted to US$ 54.000 million. Some of the losses are assumed by the agroindustrial corporate interests that control part of the fleet, which then leave profit-making for the processing and marketing links of their chains. But most of it is being financed through massive subsidies from governments of rich and poor countries alike which maintain over-capacity in an effort to protect employment in the shipyards and in the fishing industries, and to promote export. The European Union's support for fisheries rose from $80 million in 1983 to $580 million in 1990, much of it for the construction of new vessels, or for "exit grants" to get rid of the old ones.
As a whole, fishing fleets are a public money sink in the industrialised countries. At the same time, the export of surplus fishing vessels to developing countries, be it direct or through joint ventures, turns them into dumping sites for fishing over-capacity. In the pursuit of the development of their own industrial fisheries, many Southern governments are either unaware of or unwilling to take account of the fact that when a northern fishing authority subsidises the export of a fishing vessel, it subsidises the exportation of debt. Fishing industries from rich countries also benefit from another kind of subsidy: their governments put pressure on coastal non-industrialised countries in urgent need of hard currency to provide cheap access to their fishing resources.
Fishing out aquatic diversity
There are a whole series of human activities that threat aquatic biodiversity. Uncontrolled dumping of toxic waste, unsustainable tourist development, dam construction, nutrient discharges from intensive agriculture and population concentration, are just some. However, fisheries and aquaculture are currently the biggest threat to marine biodiversity, and a serious menace to continental waters ecosystems.
Due to the extension and openness of seas and oceans, the overfishing extinction of a marine species very rarely occurred until recent times. Whales were an exception, due to the fact that their hunting used to be and still is profitable even at very low population numbers. Today, however, many fish species are known to have been brought to the verge of extinction by fishing activities. Long-living and slow reproducing species are particularly sensitive to fishing activities. The living fossil coelacanth is now threatened because of the impact of small-scale fishing activities, an indirect result of a EU fisheries development programme. Commercial fishing has brought common skate to the verge of extenuation, and it is also believed that several species of shark may soon be endangered if current exploitation levels are not reduced. Some sessile species , such as giant clams, have also been decimated by fishing.
Overfishing affects fish populations in different ways. If a fishery targets a high value species, the fleets may reduce the fish stocks to a level that leads to depletion and collapse. At these low levels, the populations are more sensitive to environmental changes (such as changes in water temperature or salinity). Examples of such depletion are not infrequent as can be seen in the accompanying table. Fisheries-induced collapse of a marine population can have two consequences for biodiversity. First, the population may not recover and re-colonise its ecological niche. Secondly, rare genes can be lost as result of a drastic decrease in population numbers. As in agriculture, fish genetic diversity is the foundation on which the capacity to react to adverse situations rests.
But then, indiscriminate fishing can have a disastrous impact on non-target species as well. Recent studies indicate that anything between one quarter and one third of all caught fish in commercial fisheries is been thrown back into the water because they are considered undesirable: the wrong species, the wrong size, etc. These "by-catches" do not enter official statistics. It is thought that survival of most discarded species is low. In a sense, "by-caches" is a typical problem associated with large industrial fishing. Small scale fisheries often cater for local markets with a demand for a wide variety of fish species and sizes. The definition of "wanted" for industrialised fisheries however is much more limited as they are often catering to the specialised cannery or other processing industries. Tropical shrimp trawling fisheries (where a sack-shaped net is dragged over the shallow sea bottom shrimp habitats) are the most unselective in the world, with a ratio between discarded fish and targeted shrimp as high as 20 to 1, and even 30 to 1! Marine mammal, turtle and bird populations are also harmed by fisheries, due to their long life-span and low fecundity. For example, the vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal. It gets entangled in the illegal gillnets targeting totoaba, which is also an endangered species. In the Western Mediterranean Sea, the illegal Italian swordfish driftnet fishing very seriously threatens the striped local dolphin population.
An even more dramatic effect of overfishing arises from the depletion of prey species populations. North Atlantic seals, Northwest Atlantic whales and UK seabirds are known to have suffered starvation and population collapses when the species they relied upon have been depleted or seriously reduced. This is very much the case with some of the small fish species which are at the lowest level of the marine trophic web, such as sand-eels, anchovies, pilchards, capelin, and krill. Overfishing one of these stocks leads to the decline of other fish stocks which depend on them (as is the case with predator species such as cod and haddock, among others).
Fisheries also have an impact on biodiversity through the degradation of marine habitats. Dynamite-fishing is widespread, and when it is practised in coral reefs, one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, it not only kills fish but also damages and degrades the reef. Another example is trawling in shallow waters, a common practice in many areas of the world. Shallow waters host the most complex and diverse marine ecosystems thanks to the availability of both nutrients and sunlight. The destruction of sea grasses of Posidonia oceanica in the Mediterranean Sea -- refuge for juveniles of fish species -- is a clear example of habitat degradation. Shrimp trawling in shallow waters -- mentioned above -- also erodes the sea bed.
Introducing species: destroying diversity
Problems are not confined to the open seas. Overfishing in closed systems -- such as rivers or lakes -- has possibly a larger impact on genetic diversity than in the open seas. In every continental water system, populations have evolved in relative isolation, in a permanent process of adaptation to their environment. This has lead to the selection of particular combinations of genes which result in a maximum adaptation for a given environment. With the decreasing number of individuals of the same species, a lot of that genetic diversity is getting lost....without the possibility for natural refreshment and diverse genetic input from elsewhere. One could argue that a helping human hand introducing foreign specimens of the same species would be the solution. But that is highly questionable as those specimen are not likely to be adapted to the specific micro environment into which they are introduced. It could result in a broader gene pool, but not necessarily the one needed.
What normally occurs is the human introduction of new species foreign to local ecosystems. The introduction of new species in closed lacustrine systems -- for aquaculture or fishery enhancement -- has been the cause of huge losses of biodiversity. One classic example: in the 1950s, the Nile perch was introduced in Lake Victoria for sport fishing. Its voracity and large size has lead to the extinction of many smaller indigenous species: estimates are that 200-300 fish species may have been lost. The impact of introduced species can be even more important if it results in the introduction of new parasites or diseases. Although the Lake Victoria region has now based it fisheries on the new perch and has become one of the most productive in the world, the people around the lake who tended to rely on the extinct fish species, have suffered. The new fishery industry produces more for export than for local consumption.
Fishing out communities
The results of overfishing and depletion of resources take their toll not only on biodiversity and marine ecosystems, but also on peoples livelihoods. Canadians in Newfoundland fishing communities know this all too well. Northern cod in the North West Atlantic, off Canada, is commercially extinct. In 1992, Canada closed northern cod fisheries and they have not been re-opened since then. Over 20,000 people lost their jobs. The biomass of the stock is estimated to have gone from 400,000 tonnes in 1990 to only 2,700 tonnes by the end of 1994. In Canada and New England (USA) other groundfish fisheries have also been closed. Bad news for the 50,000 people out of work in the North West Atlantic fisheries sector; and also bad news for the tax-payers who must foot the bill for the urgent corrective measures that Canada has had to apply to alleviate this difficult situation. The Canadian Fisheries Minister seems to believe that in order to make fisheries sustainable again, a dramatic decrease in fishing will be necessary... in the inshore fishing fleet , exploited by relatively small family enterprises. Newfoundland communities, who have relied upon cod fisheries for centuries, are now excluded from them.
Small-scale fishermen and fishing communities in the South are hit even harder by similar marginalisation from control over the fishery resources they have traditionally depended on. At least 10 million people are traditional full-time fishermen and fisherwomen in developing countries, with a further 10 million as part-timers. They are among the poorest social groups. It is estimated that 100 million of the world's poorest depend on fishing for all or part of their livelihoods. Small-scale fisheries have played a capital role in supplying internal markets in developing countries with this protein, traditionally a food of the poor. Approximately 60% of the people in the Third World obtain 40% or more of their animal protein from fish.
From an environmental perspective, and given their local ecosystem dependence, many fishing communities have developed a highly structured approach to marine and fishing activities. They use different rational exploitation methods, such as the allocation of fishing areas to particular individuals or groups (more as managers than as owners), and limitations of time and area for capture of some species. The social structure of these local communities plays a key role in the management of economic incentives. These self-regulating systems are very diverse, and have preserved many marine resources since long. Local communities are also the first ones to do something about overfishing, long before their governments realise the extent of the problems and take action. In a village in Southern Thailand, for example, local fishing families re-introduced the traditional practice of "uyam", which consists of building fish refuge along the coast. Traditional uyam, made mainly by piling up wood or rocks under the see, were destroyed by trawlers, and stocks had declined dramatically. Now the local fisher families have started to build new uyam with spectacular results. "This is a true conservation method" asserts a community member, "we people need houses to shelter us. So do the fish. Fish I haven't seen for a long time have come back. The uyam really works."
Even as the role of small-scale fishermen and fisherwomen is gaining recognition in international fora, they are still disregarded by their own governments and the international donor community. Often governments tend to be easily seduced by promises of large income from export-oriented industrial fisheries development, or by the money that many Northern countries provide as financial compensation for the access to their living marine resources. As a rule, small-scale fishermen are not consulted in fisheries development schemes, and even less in the negotiation of access agreements. Some fishermen are known to have been killed by foreign fleets, and many more have suffered the destruction of their fishing equipment at sea, even in areas supposedly reserved for small-scale fisheries.
The presence of foreign and industrial fleets is not the only threat to the control of fisheries by local communities. The increasing accessibility of the international markets, and massive entry into fishing areas from people who cannot find a livelihood elsewhere, are powerful forces leading to the over exploitation and depletion of coastal resources. When the sea cucumber fishery in the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador was opened last October a limit of 550,000 sea cucumbers was set for the three month season. Within two months, the limit had been exceeded by more than 7 million.
In a world where fish demand increases at a rate which cannot be sustained by production, eating fish caught in the South is becoming a matter of competition between southern local markets and the international marketplace. As a recent issue of the Ecologist puts it: "fish has long been know as the `food for the poor'. Yet increasingly it is becoming a food of the rich." International trade has been growing at an annual rate of 18% in the 1970s and at 10% in the 1980s. Overall, developed and developing countries export roughly the same amount of fish. However, by the late 1980s developed countries imported three quarters of the fish traded annually, and the developing countries the remainder.
While the trade might have boosted foreign exchange earnings for some Third World governments, their local people have suffered. In many developing countries, exports increased while total production has dropped, resulting in significant declines in the amount of fish available for local consumption. The poor in Kerala in Southern India know what this means: whilst in 1971 their annual fish intake was 19 kg., ten years later -- during which a donor- promoted fleet of shrimp trawlers was established -- they only had 9 kg. per year. In the period 1978-1988, African per capita supply decreased by 2.9%, and in South America by 7.9%. Today, more than a third of the fish caught off the West African coast is taken by foreign fleets and exported to elsewhere. Meanwhile, and in the same period, European fish consumption rose by 23%. Overall, consumers in the North eat three times as much fish as those in the South. The internationalisation of fisheries clearly results in a trend that moves fish away from the poor towards the rich.
Growing fish: is aquaculture the solution?
Ismael Serageldin, Chair of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is on the record as saying "On the land we have learned to produce food by cultivation. But in the sea we still act as hunters and gatherers". He continues stressing that aquaculture -- the domestication of fishing -- should be the next great leap in producing food. It seems logical. We are overexploiting a wild resource to meet a growing demand, so why not grow it under controlled conditions? The move from backward "gatherers" to sophisticated "growers", just as the world's farmers started doing 12.000 years ago.
This is not a wild cry in the emptiness. In fisheries documentation from official institutions such as the FAO and the European Commission, a recurrent theme is the urgent need to develop aquaculture, given declining fish stocks, expanding population and increasing demand for fishery products. Intensive, high tech aquaculture seems to be indicated for high-valued species in northern countries, whose consumers will be able to pay high prices; and extensive aquaculture is recommended in order to meet nutritional needs of the poor in the South.
Nevertheless, the projection of aquaculture as another means to get more fish products to the consumer -- poor and rich -- hides a number of important problems. First, one of the less publicised aspects of this proposed solution to the depletion of marine fish stocks is the fact that intensive aquaculture itself involves the consumption of huge amounts of protein. Most high-value species are predators which need top-quality fish protein. About 30% of world fish catches are converted into fish meal and oils, which are used essentially for animal feeds in agriculture and aquaculture. Carnivorous aquaculture -- which comprises about a quarter of all aquaculture -- is expected to consume about 15% of the world fish mean supply in 1995.
Fishing wild fish to feed domesticated fish. Thailand, which has witnessed a spectacular 400% rise in shrimp farming, can serve as an example of this approach. Over the past decade this country has increased its forage fishing by 25%. Part of this increase has been possible through the development of biomass fishing: the sea bed is indiscriminately dragged not for shrimps and prawns as it used to be, but for anything that can be turned into fishmeal for shrimp. An environmental and socio-economic madness, given not only the physical impact of these activities, but also the importance of some of these "trash species" in the diets of local communities.
Intensive shrimp aquaculture also has a heavy and direct impact on marine diversity. It has resulted into the loss of extensive coastal mangrove forests in order to build ponds: Thailand lost 100.000 hectares of mangrove forests, and Ecuador over 120.000 hectares. Half of the world's mangrove forests have now been cut down, with aquaculture being the lead cause. In Guatemala, Costa Rica and other countries of Central America, larvae fisheries use chemicals that kill any other species in the mangrove forests, including the mangroves themselves. Other damaging effects of shrimp farming include the discharge of nutrients and chemicals to the environment, and the increase of salinity in surface and ground water.
In many ways, intensive aquaculture suffers from the same problems as intensive agricultural monocultural production: an uncontrollable spread of pests and diseases that had never been a problem before. In Taiwan aquaculture production rose to 95.000 tonnes in 1987, before collapsing to 20.000 tonnes due to virus outbreaks. In 1993, Chinese farmed prawn production declined by two thirds due to algae blooms. In the same year, Ecuadorian prawn production fell to 40 % of its peak because of similar factors. When governmental officials push outmoded "fish gatherers" into domestication and intensification, they seem to forget the implications of the "Green Revolution" in agriculture from which we are still recovering.
Genetic diversity is suffering as well. Most intensive aquaculture is based on highly uniform populations, and breeding has focused mostly on short term yield concerns and nothing else. Only in recent years -- through the International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM) -- has an aquacultural development programme taken into account the role of genetic resources, both to obtain improved performance and to avoid genetic resource erosion. In most other cases however, experimental genetic management technologies such as hybridisation, ploidy, gynogenesis and gene transfer have been used as shortcuts to obtain higher yielding fish.
In this context, biotechnology is presented as the great promise for the future. Research has focused on genetic engineering and oriented to obtain fast-growing fish for higher yields (i.e. carp, salmon and super tilapia), slow growing fish for higher quality flesh (i.e. salmon), stress-resistant fish (i.e. low temperature resistant salmon), and disease-resistant fish. The results at the moment seem to be irregular, as in the case of fast-growing Biogrow Atlantic Salmon, developed by the Canadian subsidiary of Boston A/F Protein. After one year, the engineered fish and the control group had the same average weight and size, but the genetically engineered group contained individuals that were 11 times heavier than the control group, and one was 37 times larger than the average of the control group. Even with such irregular results, the company, which is to receive a CAN$ 265,000 grant from the Canadian government, has already filed world-wide patents on the gene and transformation method involved in increasing growth rates, with licensing under negotiations in New Zealand, Scotland, Canada, the US, Chile, and possibly other countries. A/F Protein also intends to develop fast-growing tilapia and catfish.
The problems of wild fish genetic pollution through escape and interbreeding with cultivated fish -- and even aquaculturists problems due to small parental stocks -- may be increased by the spreading use of biotechnology. Some research is being done in order to obtain fish which can only reproduce in captivity, but the efficiency of such alternatives remains to be seen. And neither A/F Protein nor other companies are waiting for the results of such research efforts before embarking on commercial production.
Privatising the commons
If aquaculture is one proposed solution to overfishing, privatisation of the marine living resources is the other. Fishery policy makers seem to have reached a dangerous consensus: the basic problem of the failed management of fishery resources is the fact that they are commons, which automatically leads to a race for the last fish. Theoretically, the assignation of property rights would prevent such a race, on the assumption that, free of competition, the resource owners would ensure their conservation by the means of (hypothetical) correct management. Privatisation, it is argued, could be the solution to the long-standing fishery problems of overfishing, overcapitalisation resulting in low economic efficiency, and fishing overcapacity. Moreover, the resources owners' interest in conserving their stocks would allow for a decrease in the costs of public surveillance and control of fishing operations since the management of the resources would be left to their owners.
Not much of this seems to have happened in New Zealand, where fisheries management has been based on a privatisation scheme , the ITQ (Individual Transferable Quotas) system. In that country, fisheries investments have increased, and overfishing is rampant because of the need to maintain international market share. Yet privatisation has been very efficient in putting the small fisherpeople out of business. This measure had a severe impact on Maori fishermen in small communities and fishing ports, on part-time workers, and also on subsistence fishers, who in many cases have become cheap labour for the quota owners. Quotas have concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer fishing corporations, and have become themselves a commodity subject to heavy speculation, which in turn increases the pressure on the stocks backing them. However, in many international fora the case of New Zealand is widely invoked as the big success in fisheries management, and privatisation is being promoted to such an extent that the World Bank has already conditioned its loans to the fishing sector to the privatisation of marine resources. The US Federal Government is planning to introduce an ITQ system in its fisheries system.
The privatisation of marine living resources is much more the result of the absorption by the market of scarce resources than a move towards efficient fishing management. Moreover, this system paradoxically rewards the major contributors to stock depletion: the large companies that have accumulated enough capital through overfishing to buy the remaining resources from the governments. Furthermore, privatisation comes from and promotes a particular kind of ethic, which assumes that the most legitimate use of the marine ecosystems and their diversity is exploitation in order to maximise profits. Any other value or use has to be subordinated to the right of fishermen -- or should it be said companies? -- to maximise profits. Privatisation is presented as a way to prevent overfishing, but in essence it is a way to control the resources in the hands of big industry. No one can explain that better than the industry itself. Mark Lundstein of the USA Fishing Vessels Owners' Association, puts it like this: "ITQs are a natural solution to our overcrowded, inefficient open-access system. They will promote the efficiency of American fishing companies, `big business' companies, by providing a market-driven harvesting rights plant". What he forgets to mention is that some 100 million of the world's poorest people depend on this "inefficient" system, and they are not the ones that caused the problem of overfishing in the first place. They will be the ones filtered out in the move towards "efficiency".
If the privatisation of marine living resources extended world-wide under the current international trends in industry concentration and trade liberalisation, nothing would be able to prevent the largest fishing corporations from buying these kinds of assets and exploiting them in the way that best suits their market interests. Once the public is set apart from control of what is still our commons, companies would be free to modify the marine ecosystem in order to maximise the profits from their investments by culling predators or restocking with species of high commercial value. With time, they could develop the necessary technology to 'agriculturalise' our planet's oceans, turning wild ecosystems into domesticated fields. This is, in our opinion, the biggest threat to marine biodiversity and for the self-determination of fishing communities in the future.
In fact, the whole argumentation to move towards the privatisation of the world's fishing grounds is based upon a totally wrong assumption: that the "commons" is a free-for-all system. As pointed out earlier, coastal commons traditionally have been carefully managed and controlled by local fishing communities, with specific rules on access and with regulations on who can fish, where and how. Their knowledge and practices have maintained sustainable fishing stocks for millennia. Rather than excluding them through privatisation schemes, action should be taken to return control to their communities. Through the FAO, the international community agreed on the concept of Farmers' Rights as a recognition of the contribution of farming communities to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources in the past, present and future. It is high time that the same international community establishes and implements a parallel "Fisherpeople Rights" to recognise their contribution to sustainable fishing, and to return the control over marine resources to their communities.
The informal sector calls for action
Around the world, small-scale fishermen are not meekly accepting an ever-decreasing share of the 'fish-cake'. Nor are they resigned to increased poverty and lack of control over their life and to the depletion of the resources they have relied upon for centuries. Small-scale fishermen are getting organised. In November 1994, seven-and-a-half million Indian fishworkers staged a two-day national strike protesting their government's new deep sea policy. The government wanted to open access to Indian fishing grounds and bring in up to 2,600 large-scale, highly mechanised foreign fishing vessels. As a result of the strike, these plans were at least temporally stopped. In Senegal, small-scale fisherpeople are fighting for the right to consultation in the negotiations of a new EU-Senegal fisheries agreement. And Spanish small-scale fishermen targeting albacore in the North East Atlantic using trolls and life bait are fighting to maintain their traditional, sustainable, and profitable fishing methods.
In the search of common objectives, fisherpeople, environmental and development organisations met in the Alternative Forum which took place parallel to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. As a result, the NGO Fisheries Treaty was negotiated and a growing number of organisations network and co-operate to implement it. The Treaty contains some principles that could guide a more sound and accountable fisheries management.
As members of the global civil society, we confront a choice. We may go for the cheapest immediate fish supply, thus allowing economic efficiency to stand as the central strength behind fisheries development in a world where free trade puts slow- growing and fast-growing species, big corporations and small fishing communities into direct competition. This would undoubtedly lead to the concentration of access to and harvest of marine resources -- the oceans wealth -- in the hands of an ever smaller number of companies. It would limit our role to that of passive consumers of an ever decreasing variety and quality of marine products and expensive aquaculture-reared fish. Or we may choose to exercise democratic control over marine ecosystems and the wealth they provide, ensuring people's participation not only in access to those resources but also in the decision-making processes. We can convert our oceans into fish farms or share them with the very diversity of species that has created the oceans' wealth we rely upon.
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