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Curb on Overfishing

20 July 2014
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“Pacific Island states have suffered greatly for too long at the mercy of distant rich nations who for decades have systematically plundered their natural oceanic resources offering in return a pittance, which has been accepted without much complaining by Pacific leaders”.

At a major business event in Papua New Guinea late last year, the audience heard from a number of industry leaders about the great business opportunities that this fast growing economy of the region had on offer. While PNG’s progress is well known, the country has been making rapid strides on the live oceanic resources side as well. At the event, a representative of one of the country’s biggest tuna canneries said the company was expecting to treble the production of processed fish which would create more than 13,000 new jobs.

While the US$110 million dollar company is a pride for any country anywhere in the world, especially since it notched up its success in less than two decades since inception, it needs to be noted that tuna is a natural resource that is not limitless in supply. Though this is not to suggest that the company is indulging in any activities that might be contributing to widespread reports of depleting tuna stocks, one hopes that sustainable fishing is one of its important business practices.

It is a known and oft quoted and discussed fact that overfishing in the high seas and coastal areas in recent decades has resulted in fish stocks depleting precipitously, though there is rarely any agreement between various concerned parties of how much the decline has been in real terms. But there is no doubt that fish stock continues to be depleted despite measures and treaties that have been put in place. While such measures have helped raise awareness of the issue, success in curbing overfishing has been limited.

It is clearly driven by demand and supply. As the world’s population increases and economic growth boosts affordability of more and more people to raise their living standards, the demand for protein based food increases. This demand is expected to grow even faster in the next few decades and the race to supply that demand will undoubtedly deplete resources further before the balance that is sought from sustainable farming practices begins to make any difference.

Last year, a report published in Port Vila titled “Climate Change and Development Strategies for Coastal Communities of the Pacific Coral Triangle Countries,” said Pacific islanders who have been surrounded by such a reliable protein source as fish face the grim prospect of importing it from distant foreign lands. That is the seriousness of the situation according to this report.

It was based on studies in what is referred to as the Coral Triangle, which is also known as the “Amazon of the Sea.” It is an area spread across 14.7 million square kilometres of ocean, encompassing six countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific including Indonesia and the Philippines. The study pointed out that many of the Pacific coral triangle countries could become net importers of fish and that per capita consumption of domestically produced fish could decline without significant adaptation measures.

The report suggested forming protected areas in the exclusive economic zones and coastal areas of sovereign island nations to promote sustainability and give a chance for marine species to replenish stocks in their own natural cycles. This is a noble suggestion but it is not new and has proven to be hard to implement. In more recent times, however, there have been notable successes, especially when national leaders have displayed political will and the spirit of cooperation between nations.

Pacific Island states have suffered greatly for too long at the mercy of distant rich nations who for decades have systematically plundered their natural oceanic resources offering in return a pittance, which has been accepted without much complaining by Pacific leaders.

It has been known for decades that foreign countries, mega fishing companies and fly by night operators have been plundering the fish stocks in the exclusive economic zones of island nations with impunity. Despite all sorts of agreements and accords in place that are supposed to report catch, limit it to sustainable levels and compensate the island nations concerned correctly and fairly. But it is clear that this rarely happens. Poor island nations have neither the financial muscle nor the infrastructure to enforce their laws, which in some cases don’t even exist.

Last year, Palau acted strongly to place a ban on fishing in its waters. That could be dangerous for any maritime economy. Fishing is vital to the country’s finances. An immediate ban could rob the exchequer of vital income. But at the same time, illegal fishing might well continue especially since Palau does not have the resources to police the vast swathes of its commercial waters. Because imposing a ban is one thing. Enforcing it is quite another.

As well as losing revenue by banning fishing in its exclusive zone, it risks spending its meager resources on trying to enforce the ban. Countries that contemplate pursuing Palau’s example should rather develop alternative revenue streams through tourism investments before implementing blanket bans on fishing in its commercial zone and risking throwing the nation into financial trouble.

Last month political developments in New Zealand have led to an announcement that might be encouraging for the region’s fishing industry, if everything goes to plan. An expert in the fishing industry and a strong administrator has been picked to lead a new organisation to be formed in New Zealand to work with Pacific Island countries in the areas of fishing and industry and business development. His name is Shane Jones. He is a man of great experience in fisheries and is known for his tough stands.

It might well be a welcome development for the region as a whole to have him at the forefront of Pacific fishing issues, particularly overfishing, to which a reference has been pointedly made during discussions of the nature of his work in the new role. If all goes to plan, New Zealand might well bring in expertise and resources in helping curb illegal fishing, the scourge of the region, which is the biggest contributor to the overfishing of fish stocks.

But any such efforts will need complementing from regional governments, which will need to deal with the vested interests and corruption ridden networks within their own systems.

Island Business Magazine

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