Monday, April 04, 2011

Central American Independent Fishers at Risk

Prensa Libre: Pescadores Se Quejan Por Alza del Combustible

Central American fishers are facing many different hurdles and are struggling to survive. The Confederación de Pescadores Artesanales de Centroamérica (“CPAC”) represents the interests of over 95,000 small fishers from Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. The CPAC advocates for productive development of the artisanal fisher sector. It warns that the small fishers are “gradually disappearing” due to many different factors.

The most damaging factor has been competition from large fishing corporations. The independent fishers cannot compete with the volume of fish harvested by larger companies. The CPAC points out that the fishers have small boats that can only spend a few days out at sea. However, the corporations have large vessels that can spend up to one month fishing. The longer excursions produce much more fish and overshadow the amount produced by the small fishers. For example, in Panama, the region’s largest producer of fish, industrial fishing comprises 77.3 percent of the industry’s production, whereas independent fishers account for only 16.1 percent.

International trade could be an important opportunity for the independent fishers, but it is difficult for them to reap the benefits of international trade because of free trade agreements (FTAs). Most Central American countries have FTAs with the United States, Taiwan, and soon the European Union. However, the FTAs are benefitting the larger companies and not the smaller fishers. The FTAs remove export tariffs, and corporations are free to ship their products to whichever country has the highest prices without worrying about tariffs. Smaller fishers do not have the resources to export fish in the same quantities as the larger corporations, and many must settle for the local prices. Because of this discrepancy, many of the smaller fishers cannot take advantage of the FTAs. The CPAC estimates that 75 percent of its members sell locally instead of exporting.

Even those who are able to sell internationally are struggling. Because of the fishers’ difficulty in selling their product overseas, they must depend on intermediaries. These intermediaries sell the fish at high prices but only pay local prices to the independent fishermen. The low local price and this year’s high fuel prices have caused many fishers to operate at a loss in the past few months.

While competition from big business and the use of middlemen are greatly affecting these small fishers, other factors are important as well. Many fishers complain that tourism and pollution are causing devastating environmental damage. Resorts use fertilizers and pesticides that leak into the rivers and oceans and poison marine life. Unlike the larger vessels, small fishers’ boats cannot enter the more distant, cleaner waters. Because of this, they can only fish closer to shore where the water is more likely to be polluted and the fish are diseased or dead.

The CPAC and other organizations are fighting for fisheries law reform in Central American countries. For example, the CPAC is calling for government intervention and removal of the trading intermediaries. So far there has been little progress. However, independent fishers will not disappear without a fight. Groups like the CPAC show that the independent fishers are willing to come together and fight for more favorable government policies so they can continue to support themselves and compete with the commercial fishing operations.

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