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Fishing… to sell, or to throw away?
“Rejection is something that happens in all forms of fishing. It’s impossible to catch only what you’re going after. There are certain species with no commercial value – and for this reason, they’re rejected. Another problem has to do with size. Often, fish are caught that are too small to be sold on, by law – and so they’re thrown back. This is a serious problem because it disrupts the natural process of stock renovation”, explains Sónia Olim – who has spent the last 11 years investigating the whole rejection issue along the Algarve coastline. The work began in 1998, in a group called «Biopescas», lead by university lecturer Teresa Cerveira Borges.
Biopescas’ first conclusions showed that of the 900-plus species caught by leading forms of fishing along the coast, 69 per cent were always thrown back into the water – while 27 per cent were ‘frequently rejected’. Researchers were surprised at the wealth of species in the Algarve’s waters, and in 2004 published a book on the subject in which they identified 300 of the 900 species most frequently rejected by fishermen. Before these findings, little, if anything, was known on the subject.
Since 2007, Sónia Olim has concentrated on the study of crustacean rejection – one of the most complex, potentially devastating, problems concerning ‘fishing’ today.
“Most of the fishing for crustaceans goes on in the Algarve’s waters. The company that owns the majority of boats is from Aveiro. These boats can stay at sea for two days at a time. They are obliged to take a rest every six to eight days – but, other than that, they’re always working. They go out at dawn, come back to shore, unload their catch and go back out to sea. These are boats 20 – 30 metres long. Very modern. This isn’t anything like the traditional form of fishing. We’re talking about super-modern boats, five or six years old, with radar, depth sounders, satellite communication systems, the works”, Sónia elaborates.
On board, Sónia has seen how the fishermen operate. “They work by trawling nets – it’s a form of fishing. The process begins from the moment the net is thrown out into the sea, until it is gathered back in. Each ‘trawl’ can take six to 12 hours – and the boat keeps moving. As time passes, the net fills, catching what the fishermen want: prawns, shrimp and cray-fish - as well as what they don’t”, she tells.
“Everything in the nets that isn’t what the fishermen want is dubbed: ‘additional catch’. If the fish is of good quality, they’ll make use of it and sell it on – in small quantities. But, in the main, the ‘additional catch’ is all thrown back, lifeless, into the water: everything from several species of starfish and seahorses, to types of shark, ray and a huge quantity of crustaceans that are not ‘commercially viable’.”
Once the nets have been gathered back into the boats, the experts sort through everything by hand. “It’s logical that what they catch depends on how deep the nets go – normally anything from 200 to 800 metres down. Fishing isn’t an exact science. There are occasions when trawling goes very well and 60 per cent of everything caught can be used. Equally, there are situations when the opposite is the case,” Olim continues. Some years, she reveals, almost 80 per cent of all crustaceans caught are simply discarded.
So, what are the consequences for the environment?
“In terms of studies, there’s almost no data,” says Olim. “But what we do know is that the food chain is being altered. We’re sending dead fish to the bottom of the ocean. What comes to the surface alive (in the nets) is very little – and the probability of it returning to the sea alive is even less. It’s as if we were sowing the ocean floor with dead organisms. We’re playing with the delicate balance of an ecosystem.”
“In my opinion, this is very serious – a very bad thing. Granted, we’re giving organisms that feed off dead matter (like crustaceans) more food – but this doesn’t mean there’ll be more crustaceans, as they’re being fished at the same time!
“At this stage in my study, what I can say is that the level of rejections is really very high. There is a huge mortality rate – whether of commercial species, or non-commercial species”.
And the problem could be minimised. “In the North of Europe, for example, the kind of studies I am engaged on are considered priorities. Norway invests a great deal in research,” Olim explains. “There are countries where it’s against the law to throw anything dead back into the sea. Everything that’s captured – independent of whether it has commercial value or not – has to be taken to shore. This allows for a proper record of natural resources – and there’s no waste.”
“In Norway – where there are problems with turtles and cetaceans (dolphins, whales), all trawlers are equipped to reduce wastage. They have to be, by law. This way, they manage to make use of everything. They reduce ‘rejections’ and make use of what they’ve caught – for example: for the fish feed and animal ration industry”. In other words, there ARE business uses for species that would otherwise be rejected.
So why aren’t measure like these adopted in Portugal?
“It’s not just a question of the law – it’s much more complicated,” Olim considers. “Perhaps it’s also down to a lack of interest: it’s a question of being aware, being sensitive. Think about it: no one talks about ‘species rejections’! It’s a subject that’s barely studied – let alone publicised. Whether we like it or not, the public concerns itself with what’s ‘publicised’”…