Asia's fishing industry is all at sea

Across the region over fishing has led to a crisis in the sector. As demand continues to rise the pressure on stocks grows from China to the Arabian Gulf.

Fishmongers ply their trade in Dubai. Consumer demand is rising and catch levels are higher than national waters can sustainably provide. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters
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In Asia, fish provides 30 per cent of the animal protein in a typical diet.

In addition, millions in the region, especially among the poor, make their livelihood or supplement their incomes by fishing or related industries.

But the marine industry in parts of Asia including the Arabian Gulf is suffering from over fishing.

Consumer demand in the UAE is rising rapidly and current catch levels are higher than UAE waters can sustainably provide.

Fish stocks in the country fell two-thirds in nine years - stocks were estimated to be 529kg a square kilometre in 2011 compared with 1,735kg per square kilometre in 2002, according to figures from the Ministry of Environment and Water.

To counter the declines, the Emirates has embarked on a number of initiatives. Dubai Municipality released 70,000 sobaity and sha'am fingerlings, or young fish, into the sea last month.

The move was the latest in a programme by the agency and the Emirates Association for Fishermen to release yearly approximately 150,000 to 200,000 fingerlings of different species of local and other fish to help replenish stocks.

In Abu Dhabi, the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi's (EAD) fisheries socio-economic survey for the Abu Dhabi last month started a marine fish data collection programme that will take place over four months.

The survey will also provide decision makers, regulators and members of the fisheries industry, including fishermen, fishery dependent retail and hospitality outlets with information to assess the state of the sector, as well as the level of regulation required to successfully sustain resources in the fishing industry.

"We consider the [survey] an invaluable addition to the Government's regulatory and conservation efforts in Abu Dhabi's fisheries sector," said Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, the executive director of Terrestrial and Marine Biodiversity at EAD.

"The results of EAD's fish stock assessment over the last decade indicated that Abu Dhabi's fishery sector is over-capitalised, with 71 per cent of the resource base categorised as over-exploited. Through the programme, "we will be able to provide data that will play an essential role in optimising the use of our depleted fish stocks and rebuilding them in the long run", Ms AL Dhaheri added.

The collated data will be published in a report early next year.

Of the 126 million tonnes of fish available for human consumption in 2009, consumption in the whole of Asia accounted for two-thirds, according to data from the UN's food and agriculture organisation.

Across region, tuna is one of the most sought-after fish species and is on the verge of becoming dangerously scarce after four decades of over fishing, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) points out in a report.

Asia Pacific region's tuna industry, one of the largest in the world, directly employs more than six million people.

"A sustainable fishery industry can help replenish the tuna stock in the ocean while at the same time guarantee food security and the livelihood of coastal communities in Asia and the Pacific," the ADB said.

If current trends continue, the ability of reef systems to provide food for coastal populations in Asia and the Pacific is predicted to decrease by 50 per cent by 2050, the ADB and the World Wildlife Fund said in joint report last year.

As in so many areas, China's rise is a major factor.

As the world's biggest fishing nation, China is witnessing a dramatic growth in per capita fish consumption and is also the global leader in fish exports. In its fishing grounds in the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the Bohai Sea there are some 3,000 marine species, including more than 150 commercial species, and the country's total fishing ground area is about 818,000 square nautical miles.

There are geopolitical issues as China seeks to expand its fishing reach in the South China Sea, which has put on a collision course with its neighbours in the region.

China's distant-water sector has been largely privatised in the past few years, with 70 per cent now in private hands the remainder run by the Chinese National Fisheries Corporation. However, it depends heavily on subsidies to survive, including tax incentives.

This year, the 17-nation Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) warned China was using vast subsidies that threatened the survivability of the fishing industry in the western and central Pacific, such as tuna long-line fishing.

"It is the official Chinese government policy to assist in the growth, expansion and modernisation of its DWF [distant water fishing] fleets and to use subsidies and incentives to achieve this aim," the paper said.

"These aims are reflected in their five-year plans which detail its development agenda with regard to the deep water fishing industry. Strategic support provided through these plans has accelerated the development of China's DWF industry and lead to a significant expansion of its fleet."

Higher catch levels are forcing down the permitted catch rates of other countries in the region and the FFA said unless something was done at a high level such as the World Trade Organisation, non-Chinese fishing operations could be in serious trouble.

"These subsidies fuel the plunder of South Pacific albacore [fish] and are now leading to localised depletions and declines in catch rates across the fishery, jeopardising the livelihoods of locally owned small-scale tuna boat operators in Pacific Island countries," said the Greenpeace Australia Pacific oceans campaigner Duncan Williams.

Rapidly depleting global oceans stocks means farmed fish are becoming increasingly popular, and China has been exploring ways to expand aquaculture. Farmed fish, including carp supplies about 40 per cent of China's fish consumption.

More rapid expansion of this market has been hampered by China's polluted rivers and waterways.

Pollution is a problem around the region. This month, a huge oil spill stopped fishing near the Philippine capital, affecting the livelihood of tens of thousands of people living along Manila Bay.

Greenpeace is campaigning for a global network of marine reserves covering 40 per cent of the world's oceans, including the four high seas pockets known as the Pacific Commons to be all declared off limits to fishing. The environmental group is also seeking a 50 per cent reduction in the catch of bigeye tuna.

It has also called on South Korea to "bring its fishing industry under control and adopt a policy that ensures legal and sustainable fishing or risk a global backlash on its fisheries exports."

Korea is a leading distant water fishing power with 359 vessels operating in every ocean in the world, but in recent years the fleet has been linked to scandals involving exploitative practices in the Southern Ocean, overfishing of toothfish in Antarctica, pirate fishing and forgery in Africa and abuses against fishing crews in the Pacific Ocean.