Sun, Jul 17, 2005 - Page 17 News List

All fished out

As fish stocks around Taiwan and across the globe continue to shrink in number, the problem of overfishing grows larger

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

Taiwan will meet with Japan next week to try and calm the waters surrounding the disputed Diaoyutai (釣魚台) archipelago. Both countries, as well as China, claim ownership of the island chain. And though the islands themselves are nearly deserted, the waters around them are an historic fishing ground.

But the recent headlines created by frustrated fishermen and crusading politicians have ignored a larger problem with the Diaoyutai archipelago: the fish being fought over are dwindling in number.

According to both government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, the amount of fish caught around the Diaoyutais -- as with all fishing grounds around the world -- has dropped as a result of overfishing. The bigger problem, they say, isn't that fishermen's rights are being impinged, but rather that fishermen have plied their trade all too well.

Of course, the dispute surrounding the Diaoyutais is about more than fishing rights. Issues of sovereignty and the protection of exclusive economic zones become more important given the prospect that the islands may be a potential source of oil. But the fish that swim through the waters there care nothing about sovereignty or economic zones. And one of these fish is valuable enough to cause fishermen not care either.


Few other fish have as much value per pound at market as tuna. In Taiwan, the fishing industry accounted for 1.54 percent of the nation's GDP in 2003, or nearly NT$100 billion. Tuna made up one-third, or NT$33 billion of that amount. The five main commercial species of the fish -- skipjack, yellowfin, bluefin, bigeye and albacore -- are so important to the global fishing industry that they even have five regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) around the world working together to ensure they continue to thrive.

The question is whether tuna and other species thrive enough. RFMOs rely on data compiled by scientists who essentially guess at the number of tuna and other species. They give their data and recommendations to the RFMOs, who negotiate catch quotas. The number they're looking for is a species' maximum sustainable yield (MSY), or the greatest number of a species that can be caught in a season without depleting its stock.

The numbers are sometimes frightening. Peter Ho (何勝初) is the president of Taiwan's Overseas Fisheries Development Council (OFDC) and says that of tuna species, bigeye and bluefin stocks are the most seriously depleted.

"Bluefin is an overfished stock and quite in bad shape," he said, adding that because it is a temperate-water fish and grows slowly, it is in particular danger of being overfished.

Other stocks of commercial seafood, Ho said, are also being depleted. Squid was long a reliable catch for fisherman and of little concern to RFMOs when they were first established in the 1950s.

"In the old days," Ho said, "in the southwest Atlantic, the [squid] catch was huge. Over 200,000 tonnes [per season]." In 2003, the catch was just 11,000 tonnes, according to an OFDC report. Last year, Ho said, it was less than 10,000 tonnes.

"Some scientists and fishermen are worried wether there is a collapse of the fishery total," he said.

Years ago, monitoring fishing vessels was a next-to-impossible task. But with the advent of satellites and global positioning technology, that task is now feasible. Taiwan, for its part, employs a vessel-monitoring system (VMS) that equips each of its 600 or so large-scale ships with a GPS unit capable of relaying the ships' whereabouts. In future, Ho said, the system will be used to do much more, including monitoring the amount of fish caught per boat.

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