Easy prey? Not anymore

02 Jul 2015
The Maine scallop fishery has become a hard industry to earn a living in. Credit: maine.gov

The Maine scallop fishery has become a hard industry to earn a living in. Credit: maine.gov

Fishermen, especially the small-scale ones, represent easy prey for groups driven and financed by powerful interests, who blame them for damaging the marine environment, whether or not that is actually happening.

Some are supported by petro-chemical industries and large - often corporate - owners of industrial fishing fleets, with an increasing appetite for the inshore, coastal fishery resources accessible to and traditionally exploited by artisanal and other small-scale fishing people. Apart from the expansion of the marine extracting industry, environmentalist harassment and petro-chemical pollution, such fishermen are facing large-scale fishing vessels encroaching into their traditional fishing grounds. Their recent protesting – heard worldwide - prompted me to quote Pope Francis' Encyclical at the end of this article. 

Encroachment in India
A well-known Indian fisheries activist and FAO consultant, John Kurien, wrote a commentary in the Economic & Political Weekly of 13 June: Are Our Seas Up for Grabs?  

"Our marine fishing communities are once again restive about the possibility of a neo-liberal opening up of the seas to Indian and foreign industrial interests. Though the track record of industrial deep-sea fishing has been very poor compared to that of the traditional artisanal fleet, steps seem to be in the making to further encourage their involvement". Evidently, the pressure of the owners of large-scale fishing fleets has been getting results among the government circles, causing fishermen's organisations to become more and more restless.

In South America
Millions of artisanal fishing people along the Chilean coast are being increasingly crowded by industrial fisheries invading their traditional fishing grounds, because a law, in force since 2013, granted the latter permanent heritable fishing concessions. 

Juan Carlos Quezada, speaking for the Chilean small-scale fishermen, told the press that this law privatises marine resources, undermining the artisanal rights.

“Ninety per cent of artisanal fishermen have been left without catch quotas, because concessions and quotas were only assigned to industrial fisheries and ship-owners," he said. "They were left without their rights and many also without work."

Ali Babas
Greedy Malaysian owners of fishing licenses, nicknamed ‘Ali Babas’, are leasing them to Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese vessel owners. Tens of foreign fishing vessels, most of them from China, according to the local fishermen's associations, have reduced the catches in the Arawak area to less than a half.

Chief Minister Sri Adenan said that he had received many complaints against foreign trawlers affecting the livelihood of local fishermen. “I don’t want foreign trawlers stealing fish from our waters. They will then sell them outside our country and we don’t get anything. They are our next target”, he said. 

In Europe
It appears that European fishermen have at last woken up to face the environmentalist offensive with their own public relations campaign. This seems to be happening since Europêche, the veteran trade federation of twelve commercial fishermen’s organisations from nine EU member countries, woke up to confront NGO anti-fishing propaganda.

According to blogger Mike Warner writing on the eastcoastavocet site, Kathryn Stack, Europeche managing director, has no time for "the onslaught of NGO and media prevarication". She reacted to the habitual practice of blaming EU fishermen for any decline in yields based on highly inaccurate, conflicting or entirely false information – a part of a sustained campaign led and financed by some environmentalist organisations.

"We know,” she said, “that out there is a fish-loving populous that’s consuming an average of nearly 25.5kg per capita across our member countries”. These statistics are behind Europêche’s drive to establish far greater and more positive consumer engagement and mainstream understanding of its current practice and doctrine. 

Also Javier Garat, president of Europêche, tried to set the public opinion right. He has been quite positive of the need for confidence in the future of the EU's fishing industry, which is supported by a fleet of 87,500 vessels, flying flags of 23 member countries, landing annually 4.9 million metric tonnes of seafood. "There is no one more determined than the fishermen themselves, to see healthy and sustainable stocks. The EU sector is leading the way in innovative technology and gear development and is taking part in a huge number of projects to improve catches, enhance monitoring and compliance and participate in voluntary oceanic cleanup", he said. 

But nothing can affect the zeal of some hyper-green groups, half-blind to all the damage brought about in coastal and even offshore oceanic waters by miscellaneous non-fishing sources of pollution, and even to the natural, short- and long-term climatic and hydrographic variations influencing the abundance of marine biota across the whole food-chain. For their purpose, not to speak of the direct and indirect influence and guidance from their financial sponsors, fishermen are the weakest link and easiest to blame. Thus, fishermen in all sectors of the EU are finding themselves facing firing squads of scaremongers proliferating an opinion that fishing for seafood should be reduced if not completely avoided.  

As an example of such biased campaigns can serve a recent report, entitled Turning the tide: Ending overfishing in Northwestern Europe, produced by The Pew Foundation, that claims that EU's Common Fisheries Policy is not apt to end overfishing, by allowing quotas that are too high. And this notwithstanding the recent reports of improvement in the status of most commercial stocks in the EU area. Such lateral and top-down pressures affect fisheries management-associated politician-regulators. 

Which is why Kathryn Stack was right when she said that "the heavy regulation of EU fisheries should incorporate fishermen's views, knowledge and experience and that they deserve respect from the EU policy-makers and administrators.”

New England scallops
Since 1994-1998, when scallop yields were one third of the present level, there was a striking increase in landings and revenues, followed by dramatic development of a highly profitable commercial fishery of Atlantic sea scallops with no actual signs of overfishing. According to Mary Pols, staff writer of the Portland, Maine, Press Herald, out of some 300 scallop divers operating in Maine some 30 years ago, only some tens remained. Their fishery has become a hard industry to earn a living in, due to quotas and catch limits.

The harvest of these scuba divers plunging in their dry suits into nearly freezing water to handpick scallops from depths of about 50 to 100 feet, is less than 10% of the state’s yield. While their method is locally considered the absolute best practice, both in terms of impact on the resource and quality of the product, it is unfair that the state limits them as it does to draggers. Thus, both sectors can scallop 70 days over four months and yield 15 gallons of scallops a day.

In the neighbouring Massachusetts, in contrary to the State's council decision, continuous NGO/political pressure is to maintain closed areas, which hurts the small-scale scallop industry. This is despite authorities such as Professor Brian Rothschild and Dr Kevin Stokesbury, who headed a scientific survey of scallop stock, have backed the council's decision and concluded that closing areas was practically useless. However, until NOAA issues its final decision, artisanal scallop divers find themselves sailing against the wind.

The late Dr R E Johannes, an outstanding ecologist scholar, wrote in 1994, "… the ultimate objective of fisheries management should be to sustain fishermen and their communities…we must never forget that fisheries are a human phenomenon".

Pope Francis' Encyclical
It seems now that the struggle of small-scale fishermen for their and their communities' survival, is spreading to more and more countries. The recent Pope Francis' great Encyclical of universal proportions specifically mentions small-scale fishermen and some of his words are very much relevant to their plight. Let me quote a few:

“Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.” Also he doesn't believe that technology and “current economics” will solve environmental problems or that "the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth”.

He considers finance as distorting politics and calls for government action and international regulation, for "…authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers…" - no less relevant, in my view, in his warning against "the reach of huge agribusinesses that push family farmers off their land". I'm sure that he'd agree to add: "and small-scale, family fishermen off their waters"; wouldn't he? This fisherman believes he would.

Bless You, Pope Francis. You're a true Fisher of Men, and may I add, also for Men.

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