Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Robert Overtz: Catch less and pay more

It is common knowledge that we are running out of oil. What is not so well known is that we are also running out of big fish.

The harsh realisation that catches of big fish - marlin, sharks, swordfish and tuna - are declining rapidly is beginning to sink in. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation considers about 75 per cent of all fish fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted.

The crisis can be seen most extremely across the Pacific, the world's largest source of tuna, where catches are shrinking with the average size of the fish.

Today, a 30kg swordfish - which is too young to have even reproduced - is considered "a good-sized fish" and can be legally landed in the United States. Just a few decades ago the same fish averaged 136-180kg and could be caught close to shore with a harpoon.

In the past two years, the Pacific has seen quotas, restrictions on catches, freezes on effort and even moratoriums. The US longline fleet had to shut down for the second half of last year in the Eastern Pacific. Japan and China were not far behind.

Last December, the new international body with the unwieldy name Western and Central Pacific Fishery Commission imposed a freeze on further efforts to catch bigeye and albacore. Throughout the Pacific, it is widely documented that these two species have joined the lucrative southern bluefin tuna on the overfished list.

Scientific reports document that the biomass of these large fish have declined by about 90 per cent in the Pacific since 1950 - about the time new technologies allowed us to fish further from shore for longer and catch more fish.

Since then, technology has eviscerated those last areas of the ocean safe from us only because we were unable to reach them and stay there.

The announcement last month by the US Government that yellowfin tuna is also being overfished will send a shockwave throughout the Pacific.

We are faced with incontrovertible evidence that the lions and tigers of the sea - the ones we feed our children for lunch - are disappearing fast.

That is bad news for the dozens of impoverished Pacific Island nations that have leased their national waters to foreign industrial longline vessels to catch and export their fish, primarily to the US, Japan and the European Union.

For some of these nations, these meagre licensing fees contribute as much as 70 per cent of their GDP.

When greed and waste finally leads to collapse of these fish, millions of people throughout the Pacific will sink further into poverty.

Canneries are cutting their hours or even closing for want of fish. Stories abound of crews mutinying or being abandoned in foreign countries by captains who couldn't pay them.

The days of three cans of tuna for $1 are long gone.

The way out of this crisis is to catch less and pay more while staying out of critical areas of the ocean. It only seems fair that the countries with the resources should receive a far larger share of their $2 billion-a-year resource and still have some of the big fish around to attract far more lucrative game fishing tourism.

The US has taken the right step by restricting longline fishing for tuna in the Eastern Pacific and banning it on the West Coast. Now it is time to put the pressure on other countries to do the same.

* Robert Ovetz, PhD, is the Save the Leatherback Campaign co-ordinator with the US-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

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