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New report: Policy changes vital for Southeast Asian fish stocks

AUSTRALIA - Fish stocks in Southeast Asia's oceans are in steep deline, jeopardising the livelihoods of almost 100 million people. Governments in the region need to support the marine environment and make key policy decisions now, if the damage is to be curtailed and aquatic populations, says Dr Meryl J Williams, chair of the Commission of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

Fisheries in South East Asia have expanded dramatically in recent decades and Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines are now in the top 12 fish producing countries in the world. However, this growth has put pressure on Australia's fishing industry and lead to more illegal incursions into its northern fisheries.

In a report published this week for the Lowy Institute, Dr Meryl Williams says the situation is putting the future of shared stocks between Australia and Southeast Asia at grave risk.

The paper, titled 'Enmeshed: Australia and Southeast Asia's Fisheries' , evaluates the sources of this depletion and what can be done regionally to address the problem before it's too late.

And in her analysis Dr Williams makes specific policy recommendations:

  • Improvements to regional fisheries management organisations are vital
  • ‘MOU Box’ (historical rites) arrangements must be fixed
  • Consumers must be better informed about fish products and how they are caught/produced
  • Decentralisation needs to be more effective and made to work
  • All nations must support the marine environment

"As the fourth largest country in world fish production, Indonesia is a fisheries giant. Yet, Indonesian marine fisheries resources are close to fully exploited and a significant number in all areas are over-exploited," says Dr Williams report.

Of huge concern is the continued increase in the number of fishers emerging in most Southeast Asian countries. And this is inspite of measures to close frontiers due to territorial claims and over fishing implemented during the past 20 years.

Key concerns
Dr Williams, a former director general of the international WorldFish Center, discusses a number of key examples including:

  • The considerable decline of fish density in the Gulf of Thailand - down by 86 percent from 1961 to 1991. Whereas, between 1966 and 1994 the catch per hour in the Gulf by trawlers fell more than sevenfold.

  • Vietnam's revitalised fish industry, which is being fuelled by a rising source of imports by Australia. Here the total catch between 1981 and 1999 only doubled despite a tripling of capacity of the fishing fleet - a sure sign that fishing was reaching capacity, she said.

  • And in the Gulf of Tonkin, which Vietnam shares resources with China, the record was even worse, with fish catch per hour in 1997 only a quarter of that in 1985.

Dr Meryl Williams: Future of fish stocks in jeopardy
Dr Meryl J. Williams is member of the Australian Aid Advisory Council and has just completed a four year term as chair of the FAO Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research, and is a member of the Scientific Steering Committee of the Census of Marine Life.

The Lowy Institute is an independent international policy think tank based in Sydney. Its objective is to generate new ideas and dialogue on international developments and Australia’s role in the world. Its mandate is broad. It ranges across all the dimensions of international policy debate in Australia - economic, political and strategic – and it is not limited to a particular geographic region.

Further Reading

- You can view/download the full report at the Lowy Institute.