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The Big Picture


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The big picture
More hunters than prey - a fishing festival in Nigeria but will it, like Canada, be fished out?
Bernard Martin Bernard Martin is a rare but growing breed - a fisher who is also an environmentalist with a global viewpoint. He talked to Anouk Ride.

'I think we'd all been hoping against hope that somebody would wake up and the inevitable would never happen,' says Martin wistfully. 'But instead stocks kept falling and suddenly, in 1992, the Northern cod fishery was shut down. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people were thrown out of work. That fishery had sustained our community and hundreds of others. It was a heart-wrenching experience.'

As a fisher of 27 years experience in Newfoundland, Canada, Martin has no doubts about the reason for the collapse of cod stocks: 'Too much industrial fishing technology. The biggest culprits are the draggers [boats that haul nets along the seabed]. Dragger technology took off in the late 1950s and stocks were almost wiped out by the mid-1970s. In 1977 Canada brought levels of fishing under control and stocks started to revive. But at the same time, modern, stronger draggers were developed and stocks really didn't get a chance to bounce back.'

Canada still hasn't learnt from past mistakes, says Martin. 'Now we have shrimp - another fishery that's done with draggers - and there's a lot of concern about the negative impact of shrimp draggers on the crab stocks.'

But, he says, today more fishers are talking about conservation rather than just exploitation of stocks: 'You hear more of this talk than you ever did in the past. Just a couple of months ago fishers down the south coast decided that they wanted the cod fishery shut down. They knew that the cod were in breeding mode and they thought that it wasn't a good idea to fish during the breeding season. That's the first time that fishers have actually called on the Government to shut down the fishery because of concern about breeding stocks.'

The cod collapse also spurred scientists and fishers to work together, Martin points out. 'In the past, the fishers' traditional knowledge had been neglected because it didn't fall into line with scientific methodology. Now there's quite a successful programme to survey and use inshore fishers' knowledge and experience about the cod stocks as they recover. I and others are involved in that programme here in Petty Harbour. So that's another positive example of fishers and environmentalists working together.'

A desire to share experiences led Martin to talk to other fishing communities in Canada and overseas. 'The most valuable fishery export we have nowadays is our experience of a collapsed fishery,' he remarks with a chuckle. In his first overseas trip he found that his situation was mirrored in Nicaragua: 'The lobster fishers there told us that the Nicaraguan Government had sold licences to Honduras, Costa Rica and others. Generally the foreigners had way bigger boats and there were no limits to how much lobster they could catch or what sort of traps they could use. Soon the inshore fishers couldn't catch any lobster. It was just another example of short-sighted planning - the Government taking the licence money without thinking of the livelihoods that they were destroying.'

Getting fishers to join together to protest about their common plight is not easy, Martin explains. 'It's an incredible task to go round all these communities and organize fishers because of the nature of their work. It's an individual-type occupation and fishers also compete against each other so there's a lot of division to overcome to get fishers to come together.'

One issue that soon rallies small-scale fishers together is the increasing corporate control of fisheries. A key factor in this transition is the trading of individual transferable quotas (ITQs). Talking to New Zealanders in 1994 highlighted for Martin the inherent unfairness of this system, based as it is on purchasing power. 'New Zealand was at that time in the middle of restructuring its entire fishery by adopting an individual transferable quota system. Within a very short time 60 per cent of the fishery was in the hands of four or five big companies, destroying the small-scale operators. We hope that the day never comes when we in Canada also go for ITQs. It would be a sad day for small-scale fishers.'

Martin hopes that fishing communities will learn from each other's experience. He recalls a conversation with an Eritrean fisher who said that because fish were becoming scarcer he needed a bigger boat, a larger net and to start fishing offshore. 'I thought: "That sounds very much like what fishers were saying in Canada before the fishery collapsed." I was disappointed to hear that was happening.' Because Eritreans did not fish during the war, countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia took large catches off the country's coast, Martin explains, which spurred local desire to fish harder.

'All I can do is relate our experience,' he insists. ' I tell fishers what's happened to us in Newfoundland and try to get people to sit up, take notice and relate it to their own experience. Hopefully they'll say: "Hey that's happening here too. We should do something! We should stop going on like this if we don't want to end up like Canada."'

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New Internationalist issue 325 magazine cover This article is from the July 2000 issue of New Internationalist.
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