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Tsunami + 1 year: Reviving exhausted fisheries should trump replacing boats, gear, experts say


Tsunami survivors need sustainable alternatives to fishing depleted waters
Higher Power of Replacement Boats, Fishing Gear Increasing Catch Capacity;
Experts Recommend Boat Registry, Enforcement of Limits

One year after a tsunami devastated South Asian communities, global fisheries experts say habitat restoration, retraining and education programs are much needed to revive severely exhausted fisheries and steer survivors into more sustainable livelihoods than fishing.

According to new analyses by the Malaysia-based WorldFish Centre (see • Rebuilding Boats May Not Equal Rebuilding Livelihoods and • Rehabilitating Livelihoods in Tsunami-Affected Coastal Communities in Asia, at, those hardest hit by the tsunami include rural coastal communities traditionally dependant on fish for food security and livelihoods, with many small-scale fishers using low-technology gear and small powered and un-powered vessels.

Since the tsunami, significant infrastructure and equipment replacement efforts have been launched, upgrading catch capacity. The WorldFish Centre warns, however, that the area’s fisheries are "severely depleted" – and were even before the tsunami due to overcapacity and over-fishing.

Required today is a major investment from the enormous donations of the world community in projects to restore fisheries productivity. As well, WorldFish says survivors need retraining and education programs to find alternative livelihoods. Governments also need to ensure that fishery catches reflect the abundance of available fish.

In addition to Indonesia, the country closest to the underwater earthquake epicenter, the tsunami disrupted lives in many countries, including Thailand, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Officials estimate the total repair cost throughout the affected area at $5.8 billion, while a total of $4.4 billion has been committed to specific projects. There has been a total pledge of at least $7.5 billion from the following sources: multilateral donors $2 billion; bilateral donors $1.6 billion; NGOs $1.8 billion; and the Government of Indonesia $2.1 billion (not including local government contributions).

Devastation of Sumatra

The tsunami killed some 130,000 people (with a further 37,000 missing, presumed dead) on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

According to the Malaysia-based WorldFish Centre, over 10% of the fishers (9,082) in Aceh Province, Sumatra, perished in the Dec. 26 disaster and more than 9,600 boats of all kinds were destroyed. On Nias Island, a further 15-20% of fishers died in the catastrophe.

Impacts on fishing capacity and infrastructure were also profound. In Aceh, for example, 83 fish landing facilities and 20 ice plants were destroyed, along with about 40% of the small-scale fishing fleet and associated gear. Indonesia estimates damages to its capture fisheries sector at US$ 52 million.

WorldFish Director-General Stephen Hall says that while delivery of aid has varied significantly from one location to another across the tsunami-affected region, infrastructure replacement is relatively easy to achieve compared with reformulating fisheries policy and modifying long-standing practices of communities to ensure sustainable livelihoods.

"The reconstruction phase following the tsunami, however, has created a window of opportunity to institute reforms needed for the long-term," says Dr. Hall.

"Armed with good intentions and awash with money, but without clear co-ordination and a coherent strategy, many of the rehabilitation efforts will fail," says the WorldFish analysis. "Worse still, they may imperil the longer term livelihoods of the communities they are seeking to help. For fishers, the grim possibility that efforts to rebuild might actually send their communities on a downward path to economic misery is very real."

WorldFish says data on fish stocks is lacking for the specific places most affected by the tsunami but suspects the situation mirrors that throughout the neighbouring area.

For example, the total biomass of bottom swimming (demersal) fish at depths to 50 metres in the Straits of Malacca off the west coast of Malaysia declined to 11% of levels at the beginning of the 1970’s. A similar trend is found for deeper waters of the Straits, for Indonesian fisheries in the Java Sea, and indeed for most coastal fisheries of South East Asia.

WorldFish says governments have recognized that the fishing capacity being rebuilt post-tsunami "should be commensurate with the productive capacity of the fisheries resources and their sustainable utilization." And Indonesia has agreed that a key guiding principle is to "consider environmental sustainability throughout" and to use fisheries management tools prevent over-fishing.

"Given the likely depletion of fish stocks in the tsunami affected areas, what is certain is that these conditions cannot be met by simply returning fishing capacity to the pre-tsunami state, allowing stocks to continue on their downward spiral and condemning fishers to become even more vulnerable," WorldFish says.

"Yet there is a very real risk that this will happen if our rehabilitation response is developed without due thought given to the complexities involved and is dominated by easy and ill-considered options for replacing lost boats and gear.

"It would be a dangerous over-simplification, for example, to argue that with the death of such a high proportion of fishers, providing boats and gear to those that remain presents no risk to the sustainability of stocks or to the longer-term livelihoods of fishers."

WorldFish warns that:

1. The catching power of new boats and fishing gear is likely to be higher than those they replaced;

2. When other livelihood options are unavailable new entrants into the fishery can be expected. Entry of new participants may even be facilitated by the availability of new boats and gear or else lead to the resumption of destructive fishing practices;

3. Widespread damage to coastal habitats such as mangroves (and deforestation to support rebuilding efforts) may affect the sustainability of key fisheries resources;

4. History shows us that the continuation of open-access fishery regimes for these coastal communities will lead to an inexorable decline in resources and opportunity.

"To mitigate these factors, co-ordinated action is needed now and the priorities for expenditure of donor funds must be reexamined and more coherently targeted to secure a long-term future for the affected communities. Above all, long-term vision must guide short-term rehabilitation."

The Government of Indonesia is leading the co-ordination and guiding all efforts to help fishing communities, supported and assisted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Says WorldFish: "If necessary, donor agencies should be prepared to abandon plans to provide assistance (e.g. boats and fishing gear) that is deemed not to be in the longer term interests of fishing communities."

Specific actions needed immediately include:

  • Involve impacted communities in development of tsunami rehabilitation plans that consider the sustainable use of fishery resources and alternative employment opportunities, as required by capacity-control plans;
  • Investigate the costs, constraints and benefits of a national vessel registration system to ensure that fishing capacity is monitored and controlled appropriately;
  • Based on available science, establish a ceiling on the overall number of vessels that can operate in each region, with maximum numbers set for each category of vessel based on their catching power.
  • Enforce, through fisheries co-management, the existing legislation which bans the introduction and use of certain types of fishing gear types.

Terry Collins | EurekAlert!
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