CARACAS - Trawl fishing is on its way out in Venezuela, amid demonstrations by artisanal fisherfolk who support the new law as amended by President Hugo Chavez.
"Trawling is killing off fish species. In our case, we fish with hooks, catch a pargo (sea bream), try again, catch a mero (grouper), and clean them as we go. We used to fill the boats in a single night, but for years now that hasn't happened, and sometimes we come back empty-handed," Manuel Gonzalez told IPS.
Gonzalez is a veteran member of the Fishers' Association of Rio Caribe, a town on the Caribbean coast 340 miles northeast of Caracas.
Groups of fisherfolk have been organizing marches in the capital, some of them driving trucks carrying their boats, to show their support for the Law on Fisheries and Aquaculture, amended by Chavez in March by a decree-law banning trawl fishing.
Before the amendment, the previous law promulgated by Chavez in 2001 only prohibited trawling less than six miles from the mainland or less than 10 miles from island shores.
But the amended law bans trawl fishing in all Venezuelan waters, where Gonzalez said "Italian and Spanish ships used to trawl, not only Venezuelan fishing vessels."
At a march in Caracas last Thursday, Franklin Hernandez of the Socialist Fishers' Front in the state of Sucre, where Rio Caribe is located, said that "we artisanal fisherfolk are the ones who really supply the country. There will be no shortage of fish, and we support the new law 100 percent."
After another demonstration in Puerto La Cruz, 180 miles east of Caracas, Adrian Carias, spokesman for the fisherfolk of Los Cocos, told IPS that "when this law comes into force we'll start seeing better catches, and those who stand to gain are the people, because when there are lots of fish of all sorts, prices will come down."
Agriculture Minister Elias Jaua said that "banning trawling will not cause shortages, because small-scale artisanal fisherfolk supply 70 percent of production, and industrial fishing 30 percent, but trawl fishing provides only 6 percent of the total."
However, statistics from the Industrial Trawl Fishing Association (AVIPA) indicate that its members supply 70,000 tons of fish a year. According to the Agriculture Ministry, the total catch in Venezuela in 2007 was 267,000 tons.
"The cheapest fish species for the consumer are supplied by trawl fishing, so closing down our activity will affect the availability of the product and people's pocketbooks," AVIPA spokesman Damiano Mitrano told IPS.
A total of 263 trawling vessels fish in Venezuelan waters, and they have not put out to sea since the law was decreed nearly a month ago. "The jobs of 6,500 people in the industry and some 26,000 indirect workers are at risk," said Luis Guilarte, port manager in the eastern city of Cumana.
The new law provides for a one-year transition period, until March 2009, for the trawling companies and their ships to change over to other activities.
"It will be difficult, our hands are tied. Other activities that we could convert to are banned by international conventions or require more time, financial help, and other support from the state," Medrano said.
Gilberto Gimenez, head of the Socialist Institute for Fisheries and Aquaculture (INSOPESCA), a state regulatory body, said he would issue provisional six-month licenses to trawlers during the transition period.
However, only a handful of trawling ships have been granted permits since the law was amended.
"The reason for the new law is ecological. In Venezuela, trawlers damage over 68,000 square kilometers (26,000 square miles) of seabed a year. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warns that if this continues, marine species will be wiped out by 2048," Gimenez said.
According to studies by the FAO, two thirds of the fish stocks in the world's oceans are overfished, and the ones facing the greatest threats are close to coastlines. The global fish catch has stagnated at between 85 and 95 million tons a year over recent decades, a sign that marine reserves are overexploited.
Jaua said that "the ban on industrial trawling was requested by artisanal fisherfolk, fish farmers, environmental groups, and academics concerned with the preservation of marine and river resources, and it is in keeping with global trends."
"Industrial trawlers have the opportunity to convert to other forms of fishing that are less environmentally aggressive. If they do not, the state can absorb about 700 workers in a new mixed fishing enterprise we are establishing with Cuba," which will include processing plants, he added.
The new law stipulates that fishers must hand over 5 percent of their catch, free, to state and community institutions running nutrition programs. Giving free fish to poor members of the community is a traditional custom among fisherfolk on the Caribbean shores of Venezuela.
It also grants the state power to fix the prices of fish products along the entire sales and distribution chain. For more than 20 years, retail prices for the best fish species in Venezuela have been considerably higher than for beef.
Sardines cost almost $1 per pound, and other economical kinds of fish cost between $1.80 and $3.60, but sea bream or grouper is priced at above $9 dollars per pound.
© 2008 Inter Press Service