Devil in deep sea waters

  • 14/02/1996

Devil in deep sea waters IN FRANCE, We are used to thinking that the sea is infinitely generous. Proof: world fishing catches have multiplied five times over just 25 years. But now the golden stripes are fading. Fish resources have run out, catches tend to be depressed. Since the record production of 1989 - 100 million tonnes (t) - they have stagnated or, as in the Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea, they have decreased. A silent tragedy which is both ecological and human.

In the '80s, we had to note that the sea was exhaustible. Today, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) Of the United Nations considers that three quarters of fishing grounds are exploited to the bitter end, perhaps over their fertility limits. In 1990, Canada banned all cod fishing till AD 2000, because the cod could not breed enough and was doomed to disappear.

Not only fished species, but even species not targeted by fisherfolk are threatened, because fishing gears are not selective enough to avoid dolphins or turtle catches. We kill 20 to 40 million fish each year. Long drift-nets used in the South Pacific Ocean for tuna fishing, trapped 23,000 cetaceans during the 1988-89 fishing season, while 44,000 albatross and petrels were killed by Japanese fishing fleets.

Some people in France realised the extent of this ecological crisis and its link with the social crisis of fishworkers. French ecologists, fishworkers and industrialists agree that overfishing is leading to a virtual fish stock collapse. Says Jean- Francois Mittaine of the Fishmeal Exporters Association, "Entire fishing stocks could be exhausted in a few years if countries do not manage fish stocks with quotas, or desist from fishing in periods when it is banned."

But industrialists hardly support control policies. Even worse, the industrialisation and internationalisation of fisheries extend beyond management policies, as they slash prices and exhaust local resources. So, fish stocks and fishworker communities suffer.

"Industrial trawlers do not respect the fishing grounds of artisanal fisherfolk," moans Arena Diagne. This Senegalese fishworker, who fights to strengthen the Senegalese artisanal fishworkers' organisation, came to France in 1989 to examine the Breton fisherfolks' organisations, "Industrial trawlers fish at night in places where we plunge our line and our nets and they destroy all of them. In May 1990, three of our fisherfolk died when their pirogue was smashed open by a trawler." The trawlers come very close to the coast, and their very fine-knit trawls destroy a lot of species - shrimps often amount for only 10 per cent of the catches.

As fish stocks exhaust, artisanat fisherfolk try to intensify their fishing and to fish in new areas. Thus, fish stocks, even in artismal fishing grounds, are over-exploited and the relationships between fishworker communities themselves become more and more conflicting. Spanish fisherfolk are in confrontation with French, Irish or Algerians, just as North American fisherfolk war the Mexicans.

The traditional Organisation of artisanal fishery cannot deal adequately with this problem, particularly because many governments prefer to invest in industrial fishery in order to export and pay their international debts off. Despite its political promises, the French government is no exception to the rule. Because of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT) negotiations, because of the European Economic Community treaty, because of the liberal ideology and the policy of deregulation and because of national debt, the government liberalised trade while trying to lessen state subsidies. Breton, Normal or Basque fishworker communities are thus harshly exposed to competition.

There were 15,600 French fishing vessels of less than 50 register tonne in 1978 and only 13,400 of them in 1986. This is particularly serious because the work of one artisanal fisherperson ensures 2.5 other jobs. That is why it is now essential to negotiate a new international regulation, at least to let national social and environmental policies be possible and credible.

Since 1992, the debate has focused on an international Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries - which was finally introduced in October 1995 under the aegis of FAO. An International Code of Conduct is a corpus of recommendations that signatory countries acknowledge as necessary. It does not have force of law but the countries commit them- selves to act in accordance with these recommendations and to urge workers and firms to do so.

The proposal was in line with various previous UN conventions and treaties (See analysis: Teaching the taught) In spite of its deficiencies, this treaty represents a significant advance in international fishers' law that NGOs may use to speed up fishery reforms at local, national and regional levels.

The Code can lead to another step. It asks for artisanal and industrial fishworkers to be responsible, and for states to ensure preservation and development of bio-aquatic resources, to institute protective policies for species and ecosystems in return for fishing rights, particularly by improving fishing gears selectively and by cracking down on marine pollution.

It is hard to say how far the Code will be effective. After all, these are mere recommendations, which also respect a liberal economic framework (one article asks for free trade of fishing products). Nevertheless, the Code legitimises those principles which NGOS will be able to invoke against signatory countries, by political and legal means.

So, the Code can be an intermediate step, inadequate in itself, but a very useful move towards a more restrictive regulation. For example, one major principle in the Code is that fisherfolk and fish breeders be involved in the elaboration of policies in order to ease the implementation of the Code: a polite but firm directive to states to hold negotiations with concerned people. The second major principle specifies that states must protect the rights and living conditions of artisanal fisherfolk and all the fishworkers. The states will be hard put to adjust this requirement within the logic of the market economy.

The French artisanal fisherfolks' organisations thus supported the Code of Conduct. They were represented by the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) when discussing the Code at a FAO meeting. But the ICSF knows the Code's limitations. For example, the Code says nothing about the issue of fishing rights in high seas, which is thus rendered a free economic resource. Is this the best way to look after a common heritage? Moreover, the issue of these rights could have financed conservation policies of fish resources, but this was not discussed.

Nevertheless, the International Code of Conduct is a test of paramount importance of our ability to manage a global environmental problem which is affecting in the short-term, economically and socially, a hundred different countries, both in the North and the Third World. At the moment, this test is still far from being a success.

Related Content