Taiwan will meet with Japan next week to try and calm the waters surrounding the disputed Diaoyutai (
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.
The barrier to doing so, he suggested, is the lack of a perceived need.
"It is possible to monitor the catch," Ho said. "But there is not international requirement to do so." The reason it has not been seen as a pressing issue is matter of bureaucracy; fishermen are required to report their catch in detailed paperwork. Indeed, their reports are an important part of scientists' estimates of various fish stocks.
The other part is the arduous task of catching, tagging, releasing and recapturing fish, then calculating a stock's growth and attrition rates.
Asked if there were potential discrepancies between the the reported catch and what is actually taken from the water, Ho said it was not likely.
"I don't think there is a discrepancy," he said. "Nowadays you require a document for the sale of fish. Every single fish needs a document. Otherwise you're not allowed to sell it to the Japanese market."
Some 80 to 90 percent of the bluefin, yellowfin and bigeye tuna caught by Taiwanese fishermen is exported to Japan, the largest market for seafood in Asia.
Ho said that it is difficult for fishermen to avoid the paperwork, even those fishing the most remote seas.
The largest of Taiwan's fishing vessels rarely if ever moor in Taiwan. They are instead in the Indian, Atlantic, Mediterranean and far Pacific oceans. These are vessels weighing 100 tonnes or more and measuring at least 24m bow to stern; massive compared with boats seen along Taiwan's coast. They're equipped with huge freezers that reach extremely low termperatures. Rather than haul their catch the long distances back home, fishermen unload onto even larger transshipment vessels. Once reeled in, a fish might spend up to three months in deep freeze before eventually being marked onto a restaurant's chalkboard as the "catch of the day."
Taiwan has some 300,000 fishermen plying Taiwan's coastal waters and running large-scale operations out at sea. A quota system applies to both groups. Only fishermen in the western and central Pacific are free from quota limits.
"It would be a lot simpler if we could simply catch fish and bring them back to market," said Shao Ah-ming (邵阿明), a coastal fisherman operating out of Suao (蘇奧) in Ilan County. "But if you don't do the paperwork, you don't get paid." Now in his 50s, Shao remembers catching fish decades ago that he no longer sees in his nets.
"If quotas will help the fish come back, I support it," he said.
Aquaculture, or fish farming, has also shifted the focus of the industry. Though for some species of fish, such as salmon, the practice is far from perfected. The countries that have tried farming tuna have had limited success because of the fish's pelagic nature, preferring the open sea to the coastal regions. Tuna migrate and some species, notably bigeye tuna, swim as deep as 200m, making offshore farming of the fish problematic.
BIGGER FISH TO FRY
The result of overfishing and a changed fishing industry has Shao and the rest Taiwan's fishing fleet feeling pressure from the government to hang up their nets and find other means of earning and income.
"Around Taiwan island there is a serious depletion of stocks," said the OFMO's Ho. "The government in fact is encouraging fishermen to shift to other industries; sight-seeing, sport fishing, recreation, or whale-watching."
To help keep to the country's agreed-upon catch quotas, the government has also begun buying back large-scale fishing vessels in order to limit the size of the fleet. This year, 73 such vessels were bought back and next year another 120 will be purchased from their owners -- a 20 percent reduction of the nation's total fleet of large-scale vessels.
"You have to have a fleet commensurate with your quota," Ho said.
There are currently no plans to repurchase smaller-sized vessels, a point which sticks with Shao.
"If the government doesn't want me to fish, they could at least offer to buy my boat," he said. "But they want me to take tourists whale-watching!" Of the several problems and mounting pressure faced by Taiwan's fishermen, the dispute over the Diaoyutais is only the most recent. Shao sees it as a point of focus for local fishermen to vent pent-up frustrations.
"If there were still fish closer to home and we still made good money from fishing, no one would be arguing about fishing rights," he said.
For his part, Ho sees the the upcoming talks as an opportunity to put conservation on the agenda.
"Because there is an overlapping area with Taiwan and Japan's economic zones, there is an opportunity to make conservation part of the solution," he said. "But it's very hard to say what will come of these talks."
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