Loopholes in the net

  • 14/08/1995

The broad terms of the draft agreement expected to be ratified in August by countries participating in the 6th session of the United Nations Conference on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks are fine in form but slightly short on content. Prospects of the sustainable use of this vital stock of food and wealth will depend on whether the nations patch up this gap.

All nations realise the importance of ocean-based fishing for the health of their people and their economies. That realisation has ensured full attendance at the conference table. There is also no doubt about the differences that separate nations who would like to introduce a comprehensive and stringent mechanism for regulated high-seas fishing from those who would like no checks at all.

The former group is led by Canada, but its ranks are chiefly made up of underdeveloped countries in Asia, Africa and South America, who have long coastlines. The most vocal elements of the 2nd group are industrialised countries with comparatively small coastlines but much longer oceanic reach. The captaincy is provided by the European Union (EU), but vociferous deckmates include the likes of Japan and Korea. The flotilla has also been joined by the likes of China, fired by the ambitions of a brilliant blue economy.

Over the past decade, international conflicts over this resource have spanned the entire globe, with incidents involving England, Norway and Iceland in the North Sea to Thailand and Malaysia in the southern limits of the Indian Ocean, and France, Spain, Canada, Argentina and India in between. The idea of common rules obviously appeals to all players.

From the point of view of both general sustenance and the conservation of global oceanic resources, as well as the interests of the developing countries, it is important to strengthen vital clauses in the agreement which may otherwise amount to loopholes in the regulatory net.

The agreement has no specific measures to curb and eliminate the ubiquitous non-selective fishing equipment and technologies. These technologies are already intrinsic to the indiscriminate overexploitation of oceanic fish resources. Scientific studies have also established their role in permanently destroying the habitat of oceanic fish. These technologies have also invaded the preserves of millions of traditional fishing communities, depriving them of their lifestyles and livelihood. It would be gross injustice if the agreement fails to impose limits of sustainable utilisation on these resource degrading technologies. It's a pity, all the more because the North has never failed to bargain for technology phaseouts when it has so suited its own environmental interests.

Similarly, the agreement must address the disuse of huge and regular subsidies to the high seas fishing fleets of developed countries. The subsidies have begun to cross the US $50 billion-per-annum mark for the EU and the US combined. Both of them contribute to excess vessel capacity and overexploitation of oceanic resources.

Again, any multilateral agreement to regulate and conserve the use of deep seas fish resources depends critically on a geographically comprehensive network of regional and sub-regional supervisory arrangements. Indeed, key provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea remain restricted to paper, framed precisely for this purpose, because of the lack of such regulatory frameworks between adjoining Exclusive Economic Zones. The sustainable utilisation of straddling and migratory fish stock just cannot be achieved without such regional entities, but the draft agreement to be discussed in New York has no specific provision towards their creation.

Any arrangement to provide a sustainable and equitable use of oceanic fish resources would be crippled by the abovementioned shortcomings, which the developing countries have their own stake in overcoming. Of the international trade in fish, 70 per cent flows from the South to markets in the North. This undeniably earns them valuable foreign exchange and helps to pay off external debt but it has also moulded the modern fishing effort of the South to concentrate on high-value export species and to adopt intensive non-specific fishing methods.

It has led to many cases of juvenile and local fish species being caught through catchall techniques that sift high-value specie from the dross and then senselessly dump the latter. The Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that such wastage amounts to nearly 24 million tonnes a year. This has resulted in marked increases in prices of locally-consumed fish in many developing countries -- which is ironic considering that for the tens of thousands of coastal communities of the South, fish used to be the staple diet, cheap as air.

There are many more reasons for a stringent multilateral code for high seas fishing. Its unchecked practice has already decimated almost every known demersal fish across the Arctic, the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian Oceans. The North is already drawing up plans for raiding Antarctica next. Where will this mindless plunder stop?

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