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Thiruvananthapuram, Dec. 23

ONE year after a tsunami devastated South Asian communities, global fisheries experts say habitat restoration, retraining and education programmes are much needed to revive severely exhausted fisheries and steer survivors into more sustainable livelihoods than fishing.

According to new analyses by the Malaysia-based WorldFish Centre, those hardest hit by the tsunami include rural coastal communities traditionally dependent on fish for food security and livelihoods, with many small-scale fishers using low-technology gear and small powered and un-powered vessels.

Since the tsunami, significant infrastructure and equipment replacement efforts have been launched, upgrading catch capacity.

The WorldFish Centre warns, however, that the area's fisheries are "severely depleted" - and were even before the tsunami, due to overcapacity and over-fishing.

Required today is a major investment from the enormous donations of the world community in projects to restore fisheries productivity. Survivors need retraining and education programmes to find alternative livelihoods.

Governments also need to ensure that fishery catches reflect the abundance of available fish. In addition to Indonesia, the country closest to the underwater earthquake epicentre, the tsunami disrupted lives in many countries, including Thailand, India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Officials estimate the total repair cost throughout the affected area at $5.8 billion, while a total of $4.4 billion has been committed to specific projects. There has been a total pledge of at least $7.5 billion. The tsunami killed some 1.30 lakh people (with a further 37,000 missing, presumed dead) on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Over 10 per cent of the fishers in Aceh Province, Sumatra, perished in the disaster and more than 9,600 boats of all kinds were destroyed. On Nias Island, a further 15-20 per cent of fishers died in the catastrophe.

While delivery of aid has varied significantly from one location to another across the tsunami-affected region, infrastructure replacement is relatively easy to achieve compared with reformulating fisheries policy and modifying long-standing practices of communities to ensure sustainable livelihoods, says Dr Stephen Hall, Director-General, WorldFish.

Long-term perils: Armed with good intentions and awash with money, but without clear co-ordination and a coherent strategy, many of the rehabilitation efforts may imperil the longer-term livelihoods of the communities they are seeking to help.

For fishers, the grim possibility that efforts to rebuild might actually send their communities on a downward path to economic misery is very real.

For example, the total biomass of bottom swimming (demersal) fish at depths to 50 metres in the Straits of Malacca off the west coast of Malaysia declined to 11 per cent of levels at the beginning of the 1970's. A similar trend is found for deeper waters of the Straits, for Indonesian fisheries in the Java Sea, and indeed for most coastal fisheries of South East Asia.

WorldFish warning

  • The catching power of new boats and fishing gear is likely to be higher than those they replaced;

  • When other livelihood options are unavailable new entrants into the fishery can be expected. Entry of new participants may even be facilitated by the availability of new boats and gear or else lead to the resumption of destructive fishing practices;

  • Widespread damage to coastal habitats such as mangroves (and deforestation to support rebuilding efforts) may affect the sustainability of key fisheries resources;

  • History shows us that the continuation of open-access fishery regimes for these coastal communities will lead to an inexorable decline in resources and opportunity.

    Specific actions needed immediately include: Involve impacted communities in development of tsunami rehabilitation plans that consider the sustainable use of fishery resources and alternative employment opportunities, as required by capacity-control plans;

  • Investigate the costs, constraints and benefits of a national vessel registration system to ensure that fishing capacity is monitored and controlled appropriately;

  • Based on available science, establish a ceiling on the overall number of vessels that can operate in each region, with maximum numbers set for each category of vessel based on their catching power.

  • Enforce, through fisheries co-management, the existing legislation, which bans the introduction and use of certain types of fishing gear types.

  • (This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 24, 2005)
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