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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 October 2007, 11:20 GMT
Fishermen ride sustainability wave
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

The harbour at Lira. Image: BBC
The Lira harbour makes a picture-postcard evening view
The small harbour at Lira in north-western Spain is a pretty place to enjoy a drink as the Sun goes down.

Colourful boats bob on the waves, children play their breathless games along the sandy tracks, and fishermen and their families chat in the village's small pine-clad bar.

But some here fear the future is less than bright for the sea and the catches it brings; they fear the Sun is about to go down on an entire way of life.

"Since the 1990s, there has been a big depletion of species in this area," says Juan Manuel Gomez Leis over a glass of brown beer.

"In general, all of them have been depleted; here in Lira, octopus, squid, brown crab and turbot have virtually disappeared. We think over-exploitation and over-fishing is a large part of this, and we as fishermen have a responsibility."

The Lira fishermen, led by Mr Gomez Leis, have embarked on a radical plan to safeguard their fishery: they are asking to catch less.

Ordinary marine management doesn't do anything until there's some sort of problem
Bill Ballantine
They want to establish a marine reserve along their stretch of coast, which lies between La Coruna and Vigo, two major ports in the province of Galicia. Within the reserve, fishing will be prohibited at certain places and in certain seasons of the year.

They hope this will allow the stocks of brown crab, octopus and turbot to recover, so the grounds where they do fish will regain their former bountiful condition. They hope that catching less now will enable them, at some point in the future, to catch more.

Precautionary principle

The Lira marine reserve would by no means be the first in the world, of course, or even the first in Spain; though it is a Spanish first in the sense that the fishermen themselves are demanding the restrictions.

And with global stocks in such stark decline that there may be no commercially viable marine fisheries within half a century, the logic behind them appears irrefutable.

"Marine reserves are a new, different and additional idea to marine management generally," says Bill Ballantine, a New Zealand marine biologist who has spent three decades campaigning on the issue.

"Ordinary marine management doesn't do anything until there's some sort of problem.

"But marine reserves are precautionary, they say 'we're going to leave some bits alone so they can and will continue in their natural state, or that they will restore themselves, revert towards a more natural state'."

The price of fish

Across the globe you can find various types of reserve, ranging from places where all fishing is banned - so-called no-take zones - to those where, like Lira, certain species can be caught at appropriate times of the year.

The key, usually, is to protect the grounds where creatures spawn and reproduce, and the nurseries which shelter and feed the young.

Antonio Garcia Allut. Image: BBC
Some products you could buy from the fishermen at 15 euros, and then finally the product would be sold in the market for 50 or 60 euros
Antonio Garcia Allut
"Reserves give incredible results," asserts Ricardo Aguilar, research director of the campaign group Oceana.

"In some areas they are multiplying the catch by a factor of 25, because destructive fishing gear is not there. In an area of Sicily, for example, they decided to ban trawling for mullet; and the catches by local fishermen using gillnets multiplied by 27, in only five years."

Such tales are becoming more commonplace as coastal waters gain protection.

Britain has one no-take reserve, established in 2003 around the Isle of Lundy off the north Devon coast, historically fertile ground for lobsters and other shellfish.

"Initially we were somewhat sceptical of the marine nature reserve, as we weren't quite sure what was being asked of us," recalls John Butterwith, head of the North Devon Fishermen's Association.

"The wardens and different people such as the divers who look after the area report a huge increase in the stocks of shellfish and also the sizes; so yes, a marine protected area is a very good thing."

Evidence such as this was one of the factors persuading the community in Lira to push for their own protected area.

They were helped by a local academic, Antonio Garcia Allut from the University of La Coruna, for whom making fisheries sustainable is a grail-like quest.

Shark-heads in fish market. Image: BBC
Local fishermen are often in the hands of voracious middlemen
He believes that establishing the reserve is just one link in the chain. Another is to make sure that fishermen are properly rewarded for their efforts. If they receive a higher price per fish, there is less pressure to catch more.

Currently, he says, a big slice of the final market price is commanded by middlemen who may not care where the fish comes from or how it is caught.

"I found that some products, for example shrimp, you could buy first-hand from the fishermen at 15 euros, and then finally the product would be sold in the market for 50 or 60 euros," he tells me.

Hence the establishment of Lonxanet, a co-operative venture which aims to change the paradigm and remove the financial reason to over-fish.

Premium rates

The price of fish in the early morning markets where newly returned Galician skippers sell their catch is set by the market. Lonxanet buyers pay a premium over that market price.

Fish are transported to the depot in La Coruna. A small sales team contacts potential buyers all over Spain, and products are despatched the same afternoon.

Andreas Dominguez Beiz and Juan Manuel Gomez Leis. Image: BBC
We think that with a marine reserve we can earn a living while allowing the next generation to continue fishing
Juan Manuel Gomez Leis
"In general, buyers want something that's certified as authentic Galician produce," says Javier Vitancourt, Lonxanet's manager.

"On top of that, they want to buy a good fish caught by traditional means, and more and more restaurateurs favour the philosophy of protecting artisanal fishermen; and there are 'ecological' restaurants which look for our products."

By cutting out the traditional network of middlemen, Lonxanet says it will return about 90% of the final price to the fisherman.

On the face of it, it is a win-win situation. By certifying their wares, fishermen are able to enter the relatively new and lucrative marketplace of the discerning gourmand who demands fish produced to social and ecological standards.

By making sustainability part of the certifying process, Lonxanet ensures that if fishermen want to continue reaping the rewards, they must harvest the shrimps, crab and hake with techniques that leave stocks healthy.

Open verdict

Combining the concepts of certification and marine reserves may be a model for the truly sustainable fishery.

But there are limits. Clearly, not every consumer is willing to spend time selecting the supplier, or spend extra funds for the clean bill of ecological health that comes with these selected products.

It is also doubtful whether the Lonxanet approach could work on large-scale open-water fisheries, though bodies such as the Marine Stewardship Council are doing their best to extend certification into these areas.

Swordfish bills. Image: BBC
The idea might be harder for open-water species such as swordfish
The notion of marine reserves is probably more generally accepted than certification, but out on the water there is a long way to go. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity recommends that about 10% of the oceans should be protected from fishing; currently the total stands at about 0.5%.

There is some doubt, too, whether protecting 10% would be enough.

"I've been recommending 10% of everything for a quarter of a century now," notes Bill Ballantine, "and that is what we'd need for science and recreation and education.

"But if you wanted to be serious about conservation, keeping the options open for our grandchildren, you'd need at least 20% of everything. If your primary concern was fishing, what you'd be recommending is 30%."

After four years of preparatory work, the Lira fishermen hope to have their reserve established soon. They will regulate and police it themselves; and perhaps, in time, add to the evidence that in fisheries, less can be more.

"Many people who were against the project are now in favour, and we hope others will join us," says Mr Gomez Leis.

"We think that with the project of a marine reserve we can earn a living while allowing the next generation to continue fishing."

You can hear about more ideas for making fisheries sustainable on One Planet on BBC World Service

Taste of the wild comes home
24 Oct 07 |  Science/Nature
Last rites for a marine marvel?
17 Oct 07 |  Science/Nature
Protection urged for UK sea life
16 Jan 07 |  Science/Nature
'Only 50 years left' for sea fish
02 Nov 06 |  Science/Nature
Steps to save marine environment
24 Aug 06 |  England
Fish areas 'need drastic action'
07 Dec 04 |  Science/Nature

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