Tuesday, 27 March 2012

A Sailor's Thoughts on the State of the Sea Part Two

A message from Helen
Our Trustee,Theo continues his sailing adventure and has sent us another blog about his ocean reflections. To read Theo's full blog detailing in words and pictures his voyage visit his own blogsite. So, with that brief introduction I will pass over to Theo:

By Theo Stocker
I'm not a very good fisherman. At least, I've not caught a huge number of fish despite trailing a line for thousands of miles as we've sailed the coast and islands of west Africa. I've probably lost as many lures as fish I've caught, but the ones we have caught have been a tasty and welcome additions to our ship-board diet of gruel and hard tack (well, not quite, but anyway!). A nice little frigate mackerel or two, a dorado, a small barracuda and a squid have all found their way onto our plates.

For the people who live in this part of the world, fish is far more than a meal-time novelty; it is a crucial part of their diet as a protein staple and is a mainstay of the economy providing a living for many people on the coast. Morocco, Senegal, The Gambia and Cape Verde all have vast fleets of wooden fishing boats; brightly painted fishing pirogues and open boats, from two man canoes up to ocean-going vessels with 15 or 20 crew on board. In some of the main cities such as Agadir in Morocco and Dakar in Senegal there were small fleets of more western-looking trawlers, but these rust-buckets were a small minority. Mostly nets and lines are laid or thrown by hand and the fish are hauled back in without machinery. Further up the Gambia River, nets are strung across reed beds and seine nets are skilfully thrown, lasso-like by hand. This isn't glamorous or easy. It is a tough way to make a living – gruelling physical labour for minimal profit that leaves many of the fishermen among the poor of their societies.

In the places we visited the fish appears to be plentiful. Bustling quay-sides and markets in each little village and city-suburb where the catches are landed, put on display for sale and bought either singly or in bulk. In Dakar refrigerated trucks came to take away the prime catches; in Agadir there are enormous sardine processing plants. Mostly though, the fish goes to the local population, carried off in plastic bags or gutted by old ladies sitting around huge tubs and hung out to dry on palm mats and on piles of stones. Everywhere we went, fish with rice and a variety of sauces underpinned most menus – cheap and really tasty. In Cape Verde, barrows of fresh fish were wheeled from house to house, like a british milkman, in time for breakfast.

This seemed to me entirely reasonable and necessary. The amount of fish taken out of coastal waters and rivers at the moment appears not to impact local ecosystems too badly. The wildlife was abundant; petrels, guls and common dolphin in the Atlantic; egrets, herons, ospreys and fish eagles, to name just a fraction of the birds we saw, were plentiful in Gambia, where we even saw schools of bottle-nose dolphin hunting far upriver.

In many ways, it would seem there is nothing to worry about. That isn't the whole picture however. The bigger picture, I think, looks far more worrying.

Firstly, populations are growing, eating more and more and the number of fish taken out of the sea will have to increase to match this. Catch sizes from the same fish populations will have to increase and fishing methods will adapt to provide for this. Talking to the fishermen in Agadir, one proudly showed me his long lines of about 50 hooks each which, he told me, were for catching sharks (though this may have been a mis-translation). Long-lining is well known as a high-impact and not-particularly-sustainable means of fishing. Still, if you have to chose between making a living to feed your family or protecting the environment for future generations, I know I would choose the more immediate need.

Secondly, pollution. As I mentioned in my last article, plastic is inundating the oceans with waste that doesn't break down and I'm sure that plastic is merely the visible tip of other pollutants that end up at sea. Larger populations, all aspiring to better standards of living, are all consuming more, supported by more industry and creating a corresponding amount of waste which increasingly constitutes plastic and increasingly buys and throws away rather than reusing and recycling. Even if the countries become better equipped to deal with waste and pollution on land, I think it will be a long time before the well-being of the sea is a common concern. For now it is both a vast natural resource and convenient dumping ground.

The third reason I think the picture for the world's oceans look bleak, and perhaps most immediately worrying, is the shear scale of commercial fishing globally. In the coastal and deep water off the coast of west Africa huge rust-covered ships, mainly from the Far East, operate in fleets based around a main factory ship, catching vast hauls of tuna all of which was intended for export back to their home countries.

In the Canaries there was a shore-side factory belonging to the Japan Tuna Corporation. In Mindelo in Cape Verde, there were at least twenty non-local fishing ships coming and going in the harbour. I watched as one went alongside the mother ship and transferred by crane huge slingfuls of gigantic tuna, steaming with ice from their freezer holds. None of this fish ended up ashore to feed the local population and none of the profit from their catches provided incomes for local families.

That said, there is investment into local infrastructure by these visiting countries as recompense for the fishing concessions granted by cash-strapped governments. New roads and sports stadiums are popping up all over the Cape Verde islands. Similarly in The Gambia, Chinese agencies were much in evidence, although here it was a similar deal for the export of rice, based on loans given to farmers to buy fertiliser in return for a good price for the crop. Perhaps it's no different to the exploitation of any natural resources by foreign companies all over the world – oil, gas, minerals, wood... Not that that justifies any of it.

Fishing is absolutely essential to the communities in western Africa and for the most part the small guys don't have a huge negative impact it seems, for now at least. I can't see though how the appetites of a rapidly growing global population, the tastes that demand particular fish on an industrial scale and the use of the sea as a dumping ground can be mutually supported by our oceans. The oceans are big but they are finite.

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