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Slow Fish 2011 – against illegal fishing and for healthy marine ecosystems

by Cornelia E. Nauen

Now in its fifth edition, Slow Fish is a bi-annual fair in the port city of Genoa. The international gathering from 27 to 30 May 2011 featured educational, cultural, scientific and gastronomical events spread out over four days inviting professionals and the public at large. This year, European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Maria Damanaki, opened Slow Fish as a guest of honour joining in the drive to promote sustainable fisheries, fighting wide-spread illegal operations and rebuilding degraded marine ecosystems. Thousands of visitors enjoyed the diverse programme, food and critical discussions.

The culinary programme was a real treat from staples such as mackerel (Scomber scombrus) and European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus) deliciously presented to slow sushi - without tuna - and stockfish (Gadus morhua).

All the same, it turned out not to be easy even for those committed to responsible fishing and marketing to escape some of the fads, originally pushed by the health industry. The beautifully framed anchovy below highlights the Omega-3 content, long dismantled as a wonder 'drug'.

The many companies showing their wares and services allowed the mostly urbanised visitors to reconnect to a part of the marine world they have often lost touch with. Far from romantising fisheries, they showed the more artisanal face of the industry, working hard to demonstrate that business and high quality of product, specificity and respect for nature can go very well hand in hand. A bit disturbingly, however, not all fresh fish on sale respected the minimum size at which different species can reproduce. It was evident though that a lot of effort had gone into presenting the most responsible side of the industry and engaging the public in learning about the ecosystems and appreciating the craftmanship involved in respectfully handling the produce.

Approaching the sea from the perspective of recreation and playful learning was another entry point with particular emphasis on sustainable tourism, promoting marine protected areas and cultural products associated with the sea.

The specific educational part had a bookshop, practical cooking presentations, lectures and much more. A training road, with many practical demonstrations by indefatigably artisanal fishers and illustrated with attractive posters, introduced the urban visitors to the ins and outs of responsible fishing and nature protection.

Practical demonstrations also showed the magnificent art of building set nets from natural materials that are energy efficient (as they are not being dragged like trawls) and highly selective.

The four-day fair in splendid weather overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea was a treat for body and soul and a good opportunity to bond with old and new friends and all those who care about the sea, find out about curiosities, warnings about malpractice, but also the unrivalled beauty of nature.

Mundus maris contributed directly to two workshops, one on fishing in Africa and one on traceability.

Slow Fish workshop discusses fishing in Africa

Silvestro Greco, a fisheries biologist with international field experience and Coordinator of the Environment Area of Slow Food Italy, chaired the workshop on fishing in Africa. In his opening remarks he branded the debt European industrial fisheries have clocked up abroad and the still encountered predatory attitudes that stood in the way of shaping international relations inspired by care and sustainable use of the oceans and respect for the people of the sea everywhere.

The speakers were from Mauritania, Senegal, Kenya and Belgium.

Nedwa Mochtar Nech of an NGO in Mauritania opened the round with a detailed historical account of how fisheries had developed in the last 20 or so years, mostly driven by foreigners, as locals, except the Imraguen in and around the Banc d'Arguin Protected Area, had lived largely turned with their backs to the sea. The local fishing that had developed with loans from businessmen is largely oriented towards exports. The international hygiene norms are not easy to meet for the women who edge into fish handling and marketing. They also resent the foreign industrial vessels taking massive catches that never touch the ground in Mauritania and leave little or no benefits for the local economy.

Madien Seck is a journalist from Senegal who reports about small-scale fishermen and farmers. He denounced earlier fishing agreements struck on unequal terms with the government at the expense of local fishers. The proceeds were rarely used to improve local infrastructure or to provide other services to the public. He also cast doubt on whether joint ventures between foreign boat owners and local businessmen were granted fishing licences in a transparent way. He referred to Commissioner Damanaki in proposing not to grant licences under European fishing agreements to out-flagged vessels and seeking long-term sustainable and equitable relations. As a point of current news, the recent alleged issue of licences for already very heavily fished pelagic resources to 22 vessels flying Russian, Belizian, Comorian, Ukrainian and other flags, had drawn protest marches in Dakar from across the spectrum of industrial and artisanal Senegalese fishers.

Haidar El Ali, a Senegalese of Lebanese descent, is a diver and astute campaigner for protecting the sea through marine protected areas and education. He drew attention to the weakening over the last years of institutions normally mandated to uphold democratic scrutiny of public policy and practice.

The effects were noticeable, e.g. in expanding narco-influence in the South of the country and the difficulties to enforce even existing legislation for nature protection. He showed an educational film illustrating how the respect for carrying sheep not to be sacrificed at the Tabasqui feast had no equivalent in the sea. He reported that his efforts to help with the protection of the Sine Saloum, 7000 hectares of closed area, had shown progress as a result of the protection. Taking for comparison the baseline study carried out initially, after six years of protection, 31 new species were recorded. The size of the specimens had increased and some biomass was now being exported outside the protected area – for good catches of the fishermen.

Mbeta Abdalla Mwanatumu from Kenya spoke in Swaheli and addressed the audience through an interpreter. She spoke about her women's group buying fish from the local men or on contract from visiting Tanzanian fishermen and how they regulate access to the resource and the market to keep the resource productive. They also use solar drying and smoking to get the otherwise highly perishable product to market.

I gave the closing presentation with a summary of scientific results on how overfishing had dramatically reduced the biomass of large predatory fishes in the North Atlantic in the last 100 years. It had taken only 40 years to have the same effect in West Africa.

This by now global phenomenon had been dubbed by Daniel Pauly and collaborators as 'fishing down marine food webs' in a pathbreaking paper in the scientific journal Science in 1998. The effects are not academic, but touch on real people's lives in many ways - by reducing once wealthy fishing communities in West Africa to taking their children out of school, replacing their national dish of thiof (a grouper, Epinephelus aeneus) by sardines and driving many into emigration. Wealthy consumers in the major markets in North America, Europe and Japan may not notice so much, because global trade provides them still with plenty of fish. Increasing commercial fraud may mislabel what consumers buy and put fantasy names on species from far-flung places as the originally preferred ones have gone commercially extinct or have become very rare indeed.

Working with young people in West Africa and Europe and explaining the research results to them has led to new search for more sustainable ways of harvesting and consuming fish. The young people have also started to develop interesting art work and practice of international solidarity. Promoting energy-efficient small-scale fisheries using selective gears and showing wider social distribution of benefits is one response. Others are to fight subsidies keeping uneconomical long-range fisheries in business and campaigns to stop rampant practices of fishing baby fish. Sources for more information provided were much sought after by the participants. The presentation is available here. For an initial press reaction click here.

Direct sales and traceability

Luigi Zippo of the Port Authority in Genova, responsible for controls of the fisheries and safety, started out the panel discussion. In full uniform, Luigi Zippo gave a vivid account about the practical side of ensuring that existing rules at sea and on land are respected – in addition to the safety and rescue concerns his office is mandated with. Among the routine tasks is to check that the labelling requirements of fish at sales points and in restaurants are respected. Traceability legally required according to regulation published in the official journal on 14 March 2002 obliges to give the commercial name of the species, the method of production (through fishery or aquaculture) and the zone (e.g. the country). Restaurants must also indicate whether the dish is from fresh or frozen fish. The control service also checks whether the legal minimum sizes established for all commercial species are respected. Mislabelling making waves recently arose by declaring Micromesistius poutassou, Blue Whiting, as Merluccius merluccius, European hake, a species in high demand and commanding a much higher price, but badly overfished.

Taha Sutcliffe from British Columbia, Canada, has a family background in fishing and became engaged in supporting the demands of fishermen to be more active in direct marketing of their produce and securing sustainability of their operations. Among the principles of their association is to operate a cost-effective marketing system of direct value to the fishers and respect for the rules. All products are labelled and story-telling is encouraged through an IT platform, blogging and presence on Facebook. To their surprise and even though the participants are mostly small-scale fishers, some of their halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis), sablefish (Anoplopoma fimbria), salmon (Oncorhynchus sp.) and lobster have travelled half the world to Europe and Asia in addition to reaching markets on the Atlantic side of North America.

Antonio Attorre of Slow Food, Marche, told another story with examples of how local fishermen organised themselves in Ancona to ensure, with the help of their organisation, Lega Pesca, to enforce a strict discipline in their work concerning the type of allowable nets, the frequency of fishing and the sanitary conditions from on-board handling to sales. In another case, mussel farmers in Porto Nuovo (Ancona) had over time not only managed their trade well in a protected bay, but developed direct sales of Sunday-harvests through setting up eateries, which attract regular customers appreciative of the homely setting and freshness of the product.

Jann Martinsohn of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre put his genetic forensic work on tracing the origin of specimens of major commercial species from the North Atlantic into the context of EC Regulation 1224/09 against illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. His research work and the compilation, together with colleagues, of a major database for references, has enabled the development of a relatively cheap diagnostic kit based on genetic fingerprinting that allows to distinguish not only between species, but also sub-populations within species. Thus, when authorities are in doubt about the proper declaration of a product, they can turn to the diagnostic kit to verify the labelling. Expansion of the database and wide deployment of the kit are expected to be of significant help in fighting the plight of wide-spread IUU fishing. The full report is available here.

In the concluding remarks, I highlighted the scale of the problem of IUU fishing, which has significantly increased over the last years as more and more fisheries collapse from overfishing, yet demand is expanding around the globe. Increasingly urbanised consumers have little direct knowledge of different species and their living conditions and widespread fraud in labelling make a mocking of consumers, who would like to buy only sustainably caught and produced fish. FishBase, the global encyclopedia on currently 32,000 species of fish is a great source of information and readily used by several hundred thousand users world-wide month after month. It brings the best available science within reach of anybody with a internet access or a mobile phone. It spreads knowledge about the identity of fishes backed up with pictures, distribution maps and much more information, including 220,000 local names in many languages thanks for a wide network of voluntary collaborations. It also provides ready information about the minimum size at which species reproduce in different parts of the oceans to support sustainable production and consumption. While this information is not sufficient to prevent fraud and malpractice, we have evidence that it helps enforcement. How? Feedback from customs officer in the guest book of FishBase suggest that they use it for an initial coherence check of the paper trail of imported fisheries products. This is much needed as the increase in trade has not been matched by an increase in their capabilities to execute controls. FishBase can give them a criterion to chose whether or not to carry out costly additional checks – and some penalties on identified frauds have proven the value of the system. For more information go directly to the search page of FishBase (note that links on fishnames in this report on Slow Fish 2011 lead you directly to the species summary page in FishBase).

Nevertheless, we are faced with a dilemma. No amount of policing can ensure compliance with the rules when the economic incentives to fraud are as great as they are right now. At the same time, alternative systems based on re-establishing trust through more direct relations between producer and consumer are currently small-scale. This is an invitation to reflect together about new ways to strengthen enforcement of existing rules on the one hand, but also work towards renewed trust in economic exchanges.

The panel was ably chaired by Stefano Masini, Coldiretti, Italy.

Slow Fish 2011 - Picture gallery

Thanks to the well-organised effort of the Slow Food and Slow Fish teams with their many committed helpers the four-day fair in Genoa, 27-30 May 2011 was again a great success.

The pictures below capture some more of the atmosphere.

Welcome poster at the entry of Slow Fish 2011 in Genoa, 27-30 May 2011View of incoming ferry in the port of GenoaGreenpeace Booth at Slow Fish 2011Open Lecture at Slow Food 2011Beautifully arranged anchovies for sale at Slow Fish 2011Fish basket making - an old art, still admiredSlow Sushi at Slow Food 2011SlowSushi2.JPGFresh fish sale at Slow Food 2011Jann Martinsohn of JRC and Cornelia E. Nauen of Mundus marisThe panel on Direct sale and traceability at Slow Fish 2011Workshop 'The end of the Line', Leonid Rezantsev, Christine Handte and Abigail Shapiro (left to right)Panel on reform of the Common Fisheries Policy in EuropeStoccafisso (Gadus morhua salato e seccato) dalla Norvegia era in vendita a Slow Fish 2011Un poster simpatico sui ecosistemi era parte di un percorso educativo animato da pescatori artigianaliAnchovisFramed.JPG