Spare the rod and spoil the catch: Fleets of hi-tech vessels armed with vast nets are wrecking a way of life and threatening world fish stocks

THE AXE-WIELDING Spanish fishermen who slashed the nets of British and Irish vessels last week are part of a global fishing crisis.

The Spanish Tuna War may be novel, and welcome, to the media in the August silly season, but international conflicts over scarce fishing resources have become commonplace - and increasingly violent - in recent years. Norway last week accused Icelandic fishermen of shooting at its coastguards in a similar dispute in Arctic waters.

Like scores of coastal communities around the world, Spanish tuna fishermen are facing economic shipwreck. From Somalia to Pakistan, to Yemen, to Thailand, to the Falklands, to Alaska, local vessels are struggling to survive in the powerful wake of computer-aided boats from distant ports. English and Scottish inshore or middle-water fishermen might share similar complaints with the northern Spanish tuna fleet - but in their case the powerful competition over the horizon comes from France, or Spain.

In the past decade fishing has been technologically transformed from a hit-and-miss affair - the last large-scale human hunting activity - into a deadly accurate business. Today a skipper's skills and the brawn of his crew are less important than their electronic fish-tracking equipment, the sophistication of their nets and the refrigeration capacity of their vessel. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) warns that the technology is now so relentless that 'full exploitation and depletion of the remaining world resources can be reached practically instantly'.

The troubles began when highly mechanised fleets from Europe, China, Japan and the old USSR began seeking out distant waters in the 1970s. The world's fish catch jumped from 60 million tons in 1970 to 86 million tons in 1989. But it has been in decline ever since.

The problem is that fishing in international waters - outside the 200-mile limits declared by most countries after the Cod Wars of the 1970s - is largely unregulated and virtually impossible to police. As a result of the growth of distant water fleets, migrating fish stocks can be wiped out by intensive fishing just outside a national limit - as occurred with Atlantic cod stocks off Newfoundland.

Next week governments, meeting under the auspices of the UN, will attempt to come up with ideas to protect these so-called 'straddling stocks'. But Indrani Lutchman, fisheries expert for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), says: 'The prospects of governments agreeing to binding controls to protect migrating stocks (including tuna, cod, squid and salmon) are slim.'

Overfishing by trawlers capable of pulling nets several times bigger than the average football field is also ruining fishermen who use traditional and more environmentally sound methods. The albacore tuna stocks in the Bay of Biscay and its western approaches are not under immediate threat. But over the past four years, British, French and Irish ships - driven to seek new prey by dwindling fish stocks nearer home - have been shooting long gill nets in areas where the Spanish have fished for generations with poles, lines and barbless hooks. Far from being a primitive fishing technique, rod and line is seen by conservation groups as the most appropriate technology for catching tuna in areas where there is a large pool of cheap labour.

But the British and Irish skippers argue - with some justice - that they have been forced out of their traditional pursuits by an invasion of modern Spanish vessels, sailing north under a British flag of convenience, which can legally take part of the quotas allowed to the UK by the EU. Because of years of overfishing and coastal pollution, many of the world's most valuable fish stocks are in sharp decline or have collapsed. The Atlantic cod is one; the Alaska pollock another. The collapse of the Black Sea fish stocks has been described as the ecological catastrophe of the century. The Black Sea catch dropped from 1 million tons in the late 1980s to 100,000 tons by 1991, leaving more than 150,000 people without a living.

Rather than allowing stocks time to recover, the world's 3 million fishing vessels seem incapable of self-management. There has been an investment binge over the past decade. Fishermen complain that they are losing money: so governments pour in subsidies, up to pounds 83bn a year, according to the FAO, to catch pounds 47bn of fish. Many illegal catches and profits go unreported. 'All fishermen are liars and cheats,' says David Evans, who advises foreign governments on behalf of Marine Education and Conservation Trust in London. 'You cannot take what they say at face value.'

'There are quite simply too many fishermen chasing too few fish,' said Geoffrey Kirkwood of Imperial College's Renewable Resources Assessment Group. And, he might have added, chasing fish more successfully than ever before. New fishing-boats - some as large as liners, others, like the Cornish vessels, quite small - use technology that was unthinkable until a few years ago. The Global Positioning System picks up a 'hum' from US satellites to determine a boat's position with pinpoint accuracy.

A skipper downloads weather maps from the same satellite systems to see where the warm and cold frontal systems are. Migrating fish follow the warm fronts north. Once they get closer to the shoals of fish, the modern vessels use computer-aided sonar as a tracking device. It can distinguish the species in the shoal and estimate its size and value before the nets are lowered.

Some species, such as albacore tuna, now being fished between the Azores and the Bay of Biscay, are too dispersed for fishing vessels using purse seine nets to encircle them in the traditional way. The boats use surface side-scanning radar to pick up ripples on the surface from feeding tuna. They then shoot huge drift nets, which entrap the tuna by their gills.

These methods are highly efficient but they have the serious drawback of killing many other species as well. Even if, as fishermen protest, dolphins and other marine mammals escape through special windows in the drift nets, there is a large 'by- catch' of other fish species.

What is to be done? Slowly, and so far, inexactly, the new technologies are being deployed to police the fishermen as well as catch the fish. The European Commission is planning to use 'black boxes' linked to overhead satellites to keep a closer eye on what fishermen are up to. In future, fisheries authorities will be able to tell with pinpoint accuracy where vessels are, what speed they are travelling at, and - by extension - what kind of fishing they are engaged in. The system will be able to tell if EU boats are poaching in other countries' waters or other restricted areas where fish stocks are being allowed to recover.

But the fundamental problems will remain. Should fish stocks - even those more than 200 miles off shore - be reserved for the communities that traditionally depend upon them? If so, who is to police catches in international waters? National governments, and even international bodies such as the EU, have proved singularly ineffective in controlling fishing just over the horizon.

(Graphic omitted)

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