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ENVIRONMENT : Fishing for Solutions to Depletion of Seafood Stocks : A U.N. group warns that the world's catch of haddock, shrimp and other species is dwindling at alarming rate.


ROME — Oceans around the world are being ravaged by overfishing that has decimated natural stocks and jeopardizes the future of the seas as a source of food for the Earth's rapidly growing, ever-hungrier population.

Such are the somber conclusions of specialists at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, as they analyze new data documenting the alarming trend.

Fisheries experts from 100 nations gathered at the U.N. group's headquarters here Friday for a biennial conference heard the following blunt warnings:

* Valuable species of the fish that people most like to eat are being depleted in every ocean.

* Millions of tons of fish are discarded annually by fishermen hunting more lucrative species.

* Larger, increasingly less-economical fleets are competing to catch the available fish--often under rules-evading flags of convenience.

"The history of fishing is to postpone problems until you run out of fish, which is where we are now," said FAO's Christopher H. Newton, who directs the statistics service where global fisheries reports are assembled each year.

In 1993, the new FAO figures show, the world's fish catch was a stagnant 101 million tons. About 83 million tons were caught in marine and freshwater fisheries, the outputs of both of which declined.

The decline was offset by increased aquaculture, at about 18 million tons and growing, a bright spot in the search for fish protein. Fish farming, 85% of it in Asia, is now a $30-billion-a-year industry, according to the FAO, which will present its distressing new findings to world fisheries ministers here next week.

The total deep-sea and freshwater catch, however, has changed little in this decade. And what discourages FAO specialists is that the new numbers disguise as much as they reveal.

"There is no increase in fish for food, and the capture of valuable species is declining," Newton said. Capture of Atlantic cod, which was for decades about 2.5 million metric tons a year, has slumped in the '90s to scarcely half that, at a loss to fishermen of about $7 billion, Newton said.

Other prized marine species such as haddock, hake, flounder and shrimp are all declining because of overfishing. Part of the rich Georges Bank area off New England and the Maritime provinces is now closed by the United States and Canada to allow depleted cod stocks to recover.

Overall catch volume has not changed greatly because the decline in high-value species has been offset by increased catches of less valuable fish such as Alaskan pollack, Peruvian anchoveta, Chilean jack mackerel and South American and Japanese pilchards. Now these species too are feeling the pressure.

"Virtually all species show signs of chronic overfishing, from the large, slow-growing fish to the small, fast-growing ones," said Robin Welcomme, chief of the FAO's inland fisheries section. The FAO says 70% of conventional species are fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted or in the process of rebuilding from over-exploitation.

Some species are disappearing altogether from fishermen's nets, and many others are being reduced to a shadow of their former selves.

"Fish once caught at one meter long are now being taken at 10 centimeters. It is a classic syndrome in most world rivers," said Welcomme, citing the Mekong River in Southeast Asia and rivers in Bangladesh and West Africa as areas of particular concern.

Many enclosed seas--the Black Sea is a particularly shocking example--suffer from a combination of overfishing and pollution that has sharply reduced catches and caused economic dislocations in nations bordering them, the FAO notes.

The world's fishing fleet grew dramatically over the last 25 years as more and more countries encouraged fishing industries. But now, Newton said, it is becoming more and more expensive to catch the same number of fish. FAO estimates the fuel subsidies that governments pay fishermen each year at $5 billion. More than 1,600 large fishing vessels have been reflagged lately to maneuver around legal requirements in their original countries, according to FAO statistics.

"The world fleet has doubled since 1970 to catch one-third more fish, and most of the increase is low-value species. Today's harvest could be caught with one-half the existing tonnage," Newton said.

Today, 20 nations account for 80% of the world catch at sea. China leads with about 10 million tons caught offshore, trailed by Japan, Peru, Chile and, at 5.8 million tons, the United States, according to the new figures.

The FAO laments that, in the developing world, artisanal fisheries are overmanned and that industrial fleets of major fishing nations are not only vastly overcapitalized--but also vastly wasteful.

Z.S. Karnicki, chief of the FAO's fishing marketing service, points to a new study by American researchers that suggests that fishermen may actually catch and discard about 27 million tons of fish each year.

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