BUENOS AIRES, Dec 29, 2010 (IPS) - A video monitoring system will begin operating Jan. 1 on fishing vessels in the South Atlantic in a bid to halt the collapse of the Argentine hake population in one of the world's largest fisheries supplying the white fish market.
"Argentina is the first country to implement this measure and make it compulsory. Those who do not comply will face sanctions," Norberto Yauhar, deputy secretary of fishing and agriculture, told IPS.
The cameras are tamper-proof, much like the black boxes on aircraft, and will provide information considered crucial for halting the decline of the hake: whether or not the boats use selective fishing techniques that let young fish escape, the size of the fish caught, and how much fish is discarded at sea.
The device includes a location system that shows if the fishing vessel enters a zone where Argentine hake (Merluccius hubbsi) fishing is banned, an area of 180,000 square kilometres.
Approximately 40 larger boats will be part of the pilot test that is to begin in the New Year. After 90 days, the system will be extended to the rest of the fleet. Only artisanal fishing boats are exempt.
Not surprisingly, fishing companies oppose the policy. But groups promoting sustainable fishing are also cautious about the measure, because in some cases they doubt that it is truly part of a broad strategy to halt over- exploitation of marine resources.
Some entities, like the non-governmental Argentine Wildlife Foundation, have been warning for the past two years that fishing profits could plummet if the fish populations continued to shrink -- a situation resulting from overfishing and lack of regulations.
The Foundation reported that hake -- Argentina's leading fish export -- had seen its population fall 80 percent in the last two decades, and that fishing companies had turned to catching younger hake.
In mid-2010, more than 60 percent of the hake catch was juvenile fish, a trend that will hurt the reproduction of the species if allowed to continue, according to the Wildlife Foundation.
In response to these criticisms, the Undersecretariat of Fishing adopted new monitoring measures, including the requirement to use selective fishing techniques that allow juvenile fish to escape. But not all of the fishing companies agreed to them.
Given this panorama, the latest requirement -- to allow cameras on board -- could improve controls and lead to fines for violations. The owners of the vessels will be responsible for ensuring that the cameras are operating, and if recording is interrupted they must return to port.
But the camera requirement is not enough for the environmental organisations that are fighting for sustainable fishing -- and for more fish processing in Argentina as a means to create jobs. As it stands, 90 percent of the Argentine hake is exported, and most of it is shipped without processing.
"Obviously it will be an advance as a regulatory mechanism," Guillermo Cañete, coordinator of the Wildlife Foundation's marine programme, told IPS, referring to the cameras. "But then something has to be done with the recorded images," he said.
According to deputy secretary Yauhar, monitoring the videos will not be too complicated because only the key moments will be reviewed, such as when the nets are brought in, determining which species have been caught and their size, and what is discarded.
But Cañete is not convinced. "The problem is not this tool. We can have the best camera system, but if there is no comprehensive sustainable fishing policy, what the cameras are going to document is how we achieve the collapse of the fisheries."
His scepticism is based on the maximum allowed catch for this year, just less than for 2009, despite the warning bells. The upper limit, set at 300,000 tonnes for 2009, is 290,000 tonnes for 2010.
According to Yauhar, this year 230,000 tonnes were caught, which is less than the maximum. The decline, he said, is due to the quota system, in which a maximum catch is established, and distributed among the fishing fleet -- and not everyone fishes to their limit.
But Cañete argued that even within the maximum permitted -- which is much higher than the cautionary principle would indicate -- the fishing companies continue to catch juvenile fish. "The cameras are going to prove this: how hake is overfished," he predicted.
Also reacting with some misgivings to the camera project is the Latin American non-governmental sustainable fishing centre, CeDePesca, based in Argentina.
Mariela Cuello, director of the centre's hake programme, told IPS, "It's all well and good that they are looking for an objective way to ensure compliance with fishing and discards."
"This is a clear demonstration of what CeDePesca has been saying for years, that the system of on-board inspectors was broken and they were not doing their job," she said.
If this new approach is going to be effective, she said, the authorities need to be on the lookout for video tampering, and should establish ahead of time what is the normal percentage of discard that is acceptable.
CeDePesca brought these concerns to the Undersecretariat, which responded that observers would randomly run the boat's video alongside satellite images in real time to look for inconsistencies.
The Undersecretariat reported that 2010 will end with a record in fish exports -- not for the total tonnage, but rather for the total revenues, the result of strong prices. In past years, the exports brought in about 1.1 billion dollars. This year they will surpass 1.3 billion dollars.
"That is a very good number, keeping in mind the crisis in Europe, and especially in Spain, which is our top importer," said Yauhar.
The official also stepped up to defend the ministry's fishing policy. He said that the predatory practices that were the norm in the 1990s, when there was no regulation of hake fishing, had come to an end, and "now we are focused on the recovery of all species of the sea." (END)