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Saturday, 2 November, 2002, 16:37 GMT
Summit seeks end to fish crisis
Kuala Lumpur fish market
Fish could be priced beyond the means of the poor

The crisis of dwindling fish stocks worldwide is being addressed at a summit in Malaysia on Sunday.

Demand is outstripping supply as stocks are depleted with disastrous consequences for roughly one sixth of the world's population who use fish as their primary source of protein.


As the fish is sought by both the rich and the poor, there is a lot of conflict in this area

Mafous Ahmed
World Fish Centre
The prime minister of Malaysia and the president of Nigeria are expected to be among those attending the meeting on the Malaysian island of Penang.

The richer we get, the more fish we eat so demand in rich countries is rising with economic growth.

But many rural populations in the developing world rely heavily on fish protein simply because it has, until now, always been readily available and did not require expensive investments.

So overfishing affects both rich and poor.

In Britain, for example, the cod for traditional fish and chips is all but exhausted.

Meanwhile, small-scale fishermen in the Third World have to travel further and further in dangerous seas to make a dwindling living.

Poor lose out

Mafous Ahmed is chief economist at the World Fish Center, which is organising the Malaysia summit.

"There is a competition for this fish," he says.

Cambodian fisherman in the Mekong Delta
Fishermen are talking greater and greater risks for their catch
"The question is who is going to win in this competition. As the fish is sought by both the rich and the poor, there is a lot of conflict in this area."

Optimists say this competition could also present an opportunity: the poor world could benefit from high fish demand and prices if - and it is a big "if" - developing countries could find protein elsewhere.

Currently, however, the poor are losing the competition.

Thanks to fish farms, total fish production is actually set to increase.

But that increase will not be enough to match projected demand in rich countries so the shortage will worsen.

The rising taste for luxury fish like farmed salmon is exacerbating the situation: salmon are fed on low-value fish and can consume up to four times their own weight, so further reducing overall supply.

The summit in Malaysia will look at ways of reducing unregulated or illegal fishing, which accounts for as much as a third of the catch in some fisheries.

And it will aim to reduce the amount of fish caught in trawler nets but then discarded as unwanted.

But these measures alone would not balance supply and demand.

'Asia not the problem'

Until natural fish stocks are restored to depleted areas, big increases in fish farming seem inevitable.

Dr Stella Williams, a Nigerian scientist attending the summit, says this has already caught on in some parts of the world:

"Historically, in Asia, fish farming has been the order of the day and they have been able to integrate it into their agricultural enterprises.

"It's Europe and the Americas and Africa that we have to work on."

This year's Johannesburg summit on sustainable development set the goal of restoring depleted world fisheries by the year 2015.

But without more political commitment and massive investment, experts say that target is unrealistic.

So consumers in rich countries may well end up eating more and more farmed fish instead of the natural, wild variety.

See also:

31 Oct 02 | Science/Nature
18 Feb 02 | Boston 2002
16 Feb 02 | Boston 2002
29 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
27 Jul 01 | Science/Nature
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