The Nation

It's like a race is on to catch and eat the world's last fish

With today marking World Oceans Day, Greenpeace is calling for a crackdown on fishing fleets around the globe and the establishment of large marine reserves to preserve and restore fish stocks in all oceans.

International campaigners from the environmental group, which has offices in more than 40 countries including Thailand, flew into Bangkok last week to discuss the crisis of overfishing and the need for Asian nations to confront and contain their fishing fleets. The global environmental giant says 40 per cent of the world's oceans need to be made "off limits" to the "serial depletion" of fish stocks, so that spawning areas and fish populations can rebound."The global fishing fleet has grown 75 per cent over the last 30 years," Sarah Duthie said. "Its annual catch is now said to be two and a half times what is sustainable."There needs to be a massive rescaling. There are about six million fishing boats globally but 160,000 of them are of an industrial size - huge vessels - that are estimated to catch the same amount of fish as 3.8 million [smaller] vessels."Some of the huge fishing vessels were using highly destructive techniques, such as "high seas bottom trawling" - dragging heavily weighted nets across the ocean floor in international waters hundreds of kilometres from land. "It's like a tractor ploughing a field, taking everything in its path," Duthie said. "It's like we're in a race for the last fish on the planet."Greenpeace has been working with island nations in the Pacific Ocean for several years to try to protect key species such as tuna.It has also been lobbying the United Nations and CITES, the international body overseeing the trade in wildlife, in a bid to contain the destructive practices of fishing fleets currently running amok on the world's oceans. Japan, which has a huge fishing fleet and one of the highest per capita consumption rates of fish, has opposed the push by conservation groups to get bluefin tuna listed as an endangered species with CITES - and thus open the door to international action to try to prevent overfishing.Duthie expected a tough battle with pro-fishing nations and powerful fishing lobbies. The situation was a challenge the world community had been slow to confront partly because the fishing industry was so far away - "out of sight and out of mind". "It's also tricky because fish are under the surface, and it's hard to tell how badly fish stocks have been depleted. And it's very hard to tell when you reach the point of no return."Currently there is no global register of fishing vessels, she said. And some countries in Africa were so poor they had little capacity to counter almost continual illegal fishing by pirate vessels. Another complicating factor is that fish caught in one part of the world are often sold and consumed on the other side of the planet. "Two thirds of fish caught are consumed a continent away," the campaigner noted. The depletion of global fish stocks was happening amid changing climatic patterns and there was evidence that some changes brought about by global warming, such as melting of the polar icecaps and glaciers around the planet, were beginning to affect the migration of certain species.Marine reserves - in all the world's oceans - would help to provide a buffer and give some resilience against the impact of climate change, especially when things get worse, she said."Fish populations and spawning areas do rebound - as long as they have not been too depleted - so the benefit to outside [marine] areas is considerable."Greenpeace staff in Southeast Asia are yet to identify which parts of local or international waters they would seek to proclaim as maritime reserves. But a key area likely to be included is the Coral Triangle - in between the Philippines, Indonesia's Borneo Island and Malaysia - said to be a region rich in marine biodiversity. Asian vessels, she said, made up the majority of the global fishing fleet. Measures needed to be taken to reduce fleet sizes - to review and decommission vessels, as is beginning to happen in Europe - as well as reducing the days that vessels spend at sea, and developing effective ways to eliminate or curb illegal or pirate fishing. Moves also needed to be taken on related issues such as rampant abuse of workers on board fishing boats. The Thai fishing industry has come under strong attack recently for its widespread use of fishermen from neighbouring countries - mainly Burmese - who often endure miserable conditions and are treated as virtual slaves. Indeed it has been the focus of damning reports by CNN, the BBC, Al Jazeera and others in recent times. "No country wants to be associated with illegal fishing. What they need to do is take action before those vessels go to sea," Duthie said.

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