Overfishing Is Drying Up Livelihood of Ports in Western Europe

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The death of the fishing industry in Barbate, a town of 22,000 people, did not happen overnight. It expired over four decades, squeezed by diminishing fish stocks and by reduced access to Moroccan waters.

During that time, virtually nothing was done to diversify the local economy. When the Moroccans refused to renew the last agreement, which went into effect in 1995 and expired at the end of 1999, people in Barbate had little else to do but cast blame and collect unemployment.

Even then, many refused to believe that the times really had changed. Ship owners even invested their unemployment support payments into building new ships so they would be ready when another accord was signed. It never was.

That kind of inertia has been seen across the European Union. "The decision makers have taken a head-in-the-sand approach," said Scott Burns, the director of the World Wildlife Fund's Endangered Seas Campaign. "The EU has had a policy blind to biological realities that they simply have not had the political will to confront."

Some of that political will might be found this year as the fisheries policy comes under scrutiny. The EU report has clearly laid out the problems facing Europe. The EU fisheries policy "has not delivered sustainable exploitation of fisheries resources," the report states. "If current trends continue, many stocks will collapse."

The report agrees with industry analysts' conclusion that the fundamental problem facing the industry is overcapacity of fishing fleets. With an estimated 40 percent more fishing capacity than the oceans can sustain, tremendous pressure has been exerted on the fish stocks.

The result, Burns said, has been "a systematic depletion of the more valuable species that causes a continual hunt for new species to exploit," leading to what is called serial overfishing.

Failure to Halt Expansion

Critics contend that the EU has postponed the necessary downsizing of its fleets by moving the excess boats to third-country fishing grounds. This "safety valve" has become a lot less effective with the recent death of the Moroccan agreement, which was the biggest fishing agreement the EU had signed.

The tradition of subsidizing the fishing industry has also led to continued expansion and modernization of the fleet.

Part of the estimated U.S. $935 million of annual EU fish subsidies is intended to encourage the decommissioning or scrapping of vessels. But most of the money has been used to help artificially maintain a large fleet through price supports, loan guarantees and explicit payments for fleet modernization.

Further exacerbating the problem are advances in technology, which allow boats to go farther and faster, and to find fish with greater accuracy. Sonar and radar technology, much of it first developed for military uses, maps the ocean floor and finds the fish. Then the latest generations of nets make quick work of enormous schools of fish.

The report assigns much of the blame to politicians for not heeding the commission's previous recommendations. "The current situation of resource depletion results, to a good extent, from setting annual catch limits in excess of those proposed by the commission on the basis of scientific advice," the report says.

The limited fleet reductions negotiated in the past, according to the report, were made irrelevant by fresh subsidies for fleet expansion and modernization.

Industry critics say they are frustrated that the authorities are ignoring a clear course of action that is in everyone's long-term interests. With a fleet in balance with what the oceans can sustain, fishermen could catch more fish with less effort. That would leave a healthy ecosystem, as well as a greater return for investors.

"The problem," Burns said, "is that until there are clear rules that everyone believes everyone else is going to follow, it is in everyone's short-term interest to grab as much as possible."

The result of that can be seen in the silent port of Barbate, where on a recent afternoon the only boat at work was a coast guard vessel looking for illegal Moroccan immigrants from Africa.

"Maybe it's a good thing that the economy of Barbate has hit bottom," said Vincent Virue. "Now everyone will stop focusing on the sea, and start looking at developing the coast."

Another unemployed fisherman, Pepe Rivera, agreed. Describing all of the opportunities that lay ahead if Barbate were to take advantage of its sunny climate and wide beaches to attract tourist investment, he concluded: "It's actually too bad that the agreement was renewed in 1995. It allowed everyone to put everything off. If it hadn't been signed, this place could be doing great now."

(c) 2001 International Herald Tribune

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