Fish and the Fishing Industry In Peril
By From the Tierramérica Editor's Desk*
Fish species such as the porgy and the corvina are languishing in the seas of Central America, and the future of small-scale fishing operations is in jeopardy due to overexploitation of fish stocks and lack of planning.
SAN JOSE - Small fishing operations in Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala face an uncertain future as a result of the heavy demand for the ocean's resources, contributing to questionable fishing techniques that involve poisons or explosives.
These Central American countries do not have development plans that regulate fishing or provide economic options for this non-industrial sector, say sources consulted by Tierramérica.
Fish exports last year brought in 122 million dollars for Costa Rica, 171 million for Honduras, and 27 million for El Salvador. Making their living from fishing, whether from small-scale or industrial operations, are 26,000 Salvadorans, 100,000 Hondurans and 132,000 Guatemalans.
But the competition for resources and efforts to increase the quantity and variety of the fish catches are taking their toll on the 'pargo de la mancha', 'cabrilla gris' and yellow-tailed corvina, among other fish species.
Costa Rica, with a maritime territory 10 times larger than its land territory, is home to five percent of the fish species known on earth.
Part of the problem in Costa Rica is that 70 percent of the 4,000 fisherfolk are concentrated in the northwestern Gulf of Nicoya, on the Pacific, and the country's leading fishery, says Antonio Porras, technical director of the Fisheries Institute (Incopesca).
Costa Rican fishing laws date back 52 years and do not provide a legal framework for penalizing illegal practices, and fail to offer alternatives for the small-scale fisherfolk.
Some of the methods used that are harmful to the marine ecosystem are the use of fine-mesh nets, which capture immature shrimp, or dragging, which entails sinking the net to the sea floor and then bringing up any species that happens to be caught in it.
The National University and Incopesca are working to produce a management plan that includes training for the people involved in the Costa Rican fishing sector.
In El Salvador, small fishing operations caught 12 million kg of fish in 2002, worth 14 million dollars, compared to just 2 million kg in the industrial fishing sector.
But the industrial side took in 13 million dollars because it is dedicated almost exclusively to catching shrimp, the species in highest demand on the seafood market.
Because they catch few shrimp, the fisherfolk look for ways to boost the volume of their fish catches.
Despite the fact that laws stipulate the minimum size allowed for each species, "it is difficult to keep the fisherfolk away from economic temptations," says Juan Navarrete, of the private Economic Development Agency.
"And it is difficult to raise awareness about the rational use of resources, because ultimately over-fishing reduces their income," said Juan Ulloa, of the Fishing Development Center.
In the rivers and ponds, some fisherfolk use a poison made from the 'barbasco' plant, he said.
In areas where there is an abundance of fish, they use explosives, killing all of the fish indiscriminately.
Ever García, head of a Salvadoran federation of small-scale fishing businesses, says, "We asked the government to support us with the transfer of technology and with training," but received no response.
The use of dynamite and fine-mesh nets is common in Honduras as well, capturing immature fish as well as endangered fish species.
According to Miguel Suazo, a technician with the General Directorate of Fishing (Digepesca), for every wild shrimp larva caught in the nets, another 10 are killed.
Fisherman and activist Jorge Varela, of the Committee for the Defense and Development of the Gulf of Fonseca, lamented the marginalization of the Honduran fishing industry.
"There are no policies for conservation and the marine resources are being depleted. We feel abandoned," Varela said.
Budget limitations explain the non-existence of an integral development plan in Honduras and the lack of an inventory of native marine species, says Pedro Castellón, head of Digepesca.
In Guatemala, fishing activities are a study in contrasts: on the Atlantic coast it is very limited, while on the Pacific fishing involves state-of-the-art technologies, such as satellite-based navigation systems, says Juan Segura, director of the government's fishing agency.
These technologies have helped eliminate practices such as the use of explosives, although these could still be used in Guatemala's inland lakes and rivers, admitted Segura.
An estimated 1,240 boats are used in small-scale fishing operations on Guatemalan lakes and rivers.
* Jorge A. Grochembake (Guatemala), Thelma Mejía (Honduras), Sandra Rodríguez (El Salvador) and Katiana Murillo (Costa Rica) contributed to this report.