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Commentary (June 24, 2005)

Asia's Love of Fish - Here's the Catch

Michael Richardson (Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore)

When Taipei sent two armed frigates into disputed waters of the East China Sea this week, it intended to make political points both at home and abroad. But the intent was not just to defend Taipei's claim to sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands, north of Taiwan - whose ownership is disputed with Beijing and Japan. It was also to protect Taiwanese fishing rights around the islands.

On Monday, the day before the Taiwanese warships were sent off to "show the flag", a group of local fishermen in the Malaysian state of Sarawak staged protests over the activities of Thai-owned boats holding Malaysian deep-sea fishing licences. The local fishermen accused the Thais of encroaching into their fishing grounds.

Thailand, along with China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, is one of Asia's so-called distant water fishing nations: their fleets range far from their own shores. Tension over access to fisheries has become common in Asia and other parts of the world in recent years, as too many boats chase too few fish, causing clashes.

The Asian Development Bank says Asia has the world's largest fishing fleet, with 42 per cent of total registered tonnage. These vessels, often subsidised by governments, have twice the capacity needed to extract what the oceans can sustainably produce. The result, according to the ADB, is "a vicious circle: as catches per vessel fall, profits plummet, and fishers overfish to maintain supplies, causing serious depletion of stocks and endangering long-term availability".

The overfishing crisis is a global problem, but its implications for Asia are more serious than for any other part of the world. Fish is a staple food in the region and a main source of protein. The ADB, based in Manila, predicts demand for fish in Asia will continue to rise, reaching 69 million tonnes by 2010 and accounting for 60 per cent of the world demand for fish for human consumption, compared to 53 per cent in 1990.

Although Japan will remain the biggest fish consumer on a per-capita basis, China, with a projected population of 1.4 billion, will take by far the biggest amount of fish by 2010 - an estimated 28 million tonnes. Can wild fisheries and aquaculture meet the demand from Asia and the rest of the planet?

Last March, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a grim snapshot of the state of world fisheries. Its biannual report warned of growing pressure on stocks, since 2002, that was unsustainable amid rising consumption.

The FAO said 52 per cent of world fish stocks were fully exploited, compared with 47 per cent three years before, while nearly 25 per cent were over-exploited. Seven of the top 10 marine fish species were already stretched to their limits or in decline.

"Stock depletion has implications for food security and economic development, reduces social welfare in countries around the world and undermines the well-being of underwater ecosystems," said Ichiro Nomura, the FAO's assistant director-general for fisheries.

The UN agency underscored the urgent need to rebuild depleted wild fish stocks while increasing coastal fish-farm production. Yet the latter, now widely practised in Asia, is problematic because it often causes environmental damage. Meanwhile, imposing quotas so that overfished areas can recover is unpopular and difficult to enforce.

Can Asia meet its future demand for fish? The ADB says the answer will be positive only if strong action is taken to improve the management of wild fisheries resources, develop aquaculture in a responsible way and better protect the environment. Otherwise, it warns, the region could face large fish shortages.

(Originally appeared in the June 24, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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