Fishing for tomorrow
Around the world, many people's livelihoods are dependant on the fishing industry. Over-fishing is however bringing hundreds of fish species to the brink of extinction. European scientists have been measuring the global extent of this problem for the past three years. The results of their studies are leading to new solutions to introduce sustainability to current fishing methods.
The methods used by the fishermen of Senegal are much the same as those of previous centuries. Amar Ndiaye, a local fisherman with 40 years' experience, confirms that there are far fewer fish now than in the past and that the fish caught are often too small. The diversity of fish has also decreased since he was young. The cause is over-fishing, by both local fishermen and foreign factory ships. Scientists are now getting involved to stop the ecological devastation of the remaining species.
The key goal is to improve the management of resources. To achieve that, scientists collect information about the number of boats out fishing and the time spent fishing. Systematic measurements are taken to estimate daily catches and the extent of fishing taking place along the Senegalese coast. Specimens from the catches are taken back to the lab to see if the fish have already laid eggs. This is a critical factor, since it is the over-fishing of young, immature fish that will drive a species to extinction.
Action against over-fishing could include the establishment of protected marine areas, leaving areas to allow for reproduction or altering the mesh size of the fishing nets to allow small fish to swim through. “Fish rulers” have now been designed for Senegal and other fishing grounds around the world, indicating the minimum size of a “mature” fish.
The research in Senegal, as well as research taking place in 20 other countries, is being coordinated from the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Kiel in northern Germany. The coordinator of the project, called Incofish, is Rainer Froese. He wants to get the fishermen to leave the fish until they are of a suitable size, normally half to two-thirds of their full size. The studies have shown that if the fishermen were to wait and allow the fish to grow, the fish populations could be 7 times higher, allowing the fishermen to catch more and ultimately suffer no financial loss. Furthermore, once the fish are of an appropriate size, the labour required by the fishermen is much less.
The field work carried out in Senegal and other countries are collected in a massive database and used for the generation of interactive maps. The database provides information for different species about the fish's biology, distribution and migratory habits. The maps show a geographical display of the level of fishing and over-fishing (see Aquamaps below).
Also involved in the project are large-scale retailers. “Sustainable fishing” green labels were introduced a year ago at a supermarket in southern Germany. These labels guarantee that the fish was caught at a mature age and is being sold at a fair price. Customer reactions have been mixed, but the retailer's purchase manager, Frank Hirnschal, acknowledges the long-term benefits of avoiding a massive escalation of price on the worldwide market, something that can only be done through the implementation of suitable fishing methods.
A vital step is educating the fishermen about their situation: that fish are a renewable resource that needs to be maintained. Scientists believe that the fish stocks of the future can be just as plentiful as they were in the past, if those concerned recognise their responsibilities today.