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Monday, December 05, 2016

A Seriously Depleting Vital Coastal Resource

"These big industrial fisheries are chasing the fish. In west Africa, larger vessels are moving closer and closer to shore. A lot of these indigenous communities, all they have are dugout canoes."
"What you've seen is as people have less access to their traditional fishing ground people have turned to eating more food in the stores."
"People are wondering about the effects on their health. There's an elevation in cases of diabetes."
"A lot of communities are very similar, their food and cultural practices. What do they do if the fish are gone?
"We are at risk of losing human cultures that have been around for thousands of years, which makes this issue much more than environmental."
Andres Cisneros-Montemayor, research associate, University of British Columbia
University of British Columbia
A new study has been released by UBC, published in PLOS One. And, in a sense, it reflects what we already know about how the hunger for seafood and intrusion into national waters in Africa has affected Somalia. Former Somalian fishers have found their formerly abundant catch being scooped up by foreign fleets who have no compunction over fishing in waters traditionally the territory of Somalians, and in fact within the legal offshore territorial claims recognized internationally, by the country.

But Somalia is a poor African country, torn by countless wars, and with a weak government unable to defend or fend for itself. So the former fishing folk turned to piracy, and found that calling far more advantageous to them financially than fishing which formed part of their cultural heritage, ever was. It was a kind of revenge, in a sense, against large global commercial shipping fleets, to capture the ships and crews and hold them for ransom. This action wasn't meant to be beneficial to the country, but to the crews who signed on to this illegal, corrupt activity.

Perhaps, in a sense, no more illegal and corrupt than the giant fishing fleets that placed their indigenous fishers out of commission. What happened was that enough influential, wealthy nations saw their corporate interests at risk and their insurance rates climb, so they jointly challenged the pirates whose gains enabled them to buy larger, more technical craft, and advanced arms and to become something akin to local warlords who were supported by investors from offshore, like Qatar.

Pirates had long plagued fishermen off the Somali coast, but now they were taking the huge freighters which are the lifeblood of international trade. Getty

That, of course, is an entirely different story than the one that the UBC study targets. Its conclusion was to demonstrate that indigenous people living on the world's coastal regions eat far more fish than those living in nations' interior regions. And linking their foodsource to their culture and their native religion. It is estimated that, overall, people consume roughly 102 million tons of seafood annually; a vital source of nutrition for people living in proximity to the world's oceans.

Coastal residents eat fifteen times per capita more fish than those living elsewhere in the world, equalling 2.3 million tons; two percent of the global catch. Fish, however, because it is so important to these indigenous communities, has served as a central theme of their culture and religion; seafood long considered to represent a gift from the gods. Coastal peoples living in the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Arctic for starters, view seafood as critical to their very existence. And it is.
Mothers and children handlining for fish in the evening in Kavieng, Papua New Guinea. Image by Colette Wabnitz
Mothers and children handlining for fish in the evening in Kavieng, Papua New Guinea. Image by Colette Wabnitz

But overfishing and the movement of fish from their traditional ocean-sourcing areas, resulting from climate change, could soon enough have the effect of removing those resources entirely. Huge commercial ships are encroaching increasingly on native fishing areas on the African coast, even as ocean stocks are diminishing. This study points out what anthropologist hadn't previously realized; how much indigenous people living on coasts rely on fish for their traditional diet and their health.

United Nations data was useful in identifying and defining indigenous populations. Some 370 million people worldwide are considered to represent indigenous populations, about five percent; mostly ethnic minorities native to the regions they inhabit. There are about 27 million people in almost two thousand communities, in 87 countries that encompass the coastal indigenous culture of seafood consumption. Native coastal people occupy their positions universally world-wide.

From the Pacific Northwest in the U.S. and Canada; in the Arctic regions, in Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe, all represent a portion of the geographic areas where indigenous populations have existed for centuries, while the world progressed in its advancement toward 'developed' status around them, as though the two occupying the same geography were in isolation to one another, and in many instances, that is precisely so.

Local fish on sale at the Saturday market in Kavieng, Papua New Guinea. Image by Colette Wabnitz.
Local fish on sale at the Saturday market in Kavieng, Papua New Guinea. Image by Colette Wabnitz

A database was created by the researchers to aid in determining how much of the global catch is used where coastal indigenous people live. In so doing, it was discovered that coastal indigenous people took 75 kilograms per person, while the rest of the world consumed 20 kg per person. The study was unable to determine whether coastal natives were consuming more or less fish than what occurred in the past.

"That's why these baseline studies are so important", cautioned Dr. Cisneros-Montemayor. "Since this [study] is the first one, we have no number to compare it with. But people on the ground have noticed a big decline in consumption of these foods. People have noticed a decline in their culture and social cohesion."

The study “A global estimate of seafood consumption by coastal Indigenous peoples” was published in PLOS ONE.

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