(IPS) BRUSSELS -- Environmental and development groups say European Union proposals to send old fishing boats due to be scrapped to tsunami-hit areas could do more harm than good.
The European Commission, the European Union (EU) executive, announced Jan. 24 that it plans to transfer some 1,100 European decommissioned fishing boats between five and 20 years old to the seven countries hit hardest by the catastrophe -- India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The damage to the fishery industry in tsunami-hit countries has endangered the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of families.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations food agency, said earlier this month that the tsunami has cost the fishing industry of the affected countries some 393 million euros ($520 million).
The FAO says 111,073 fishing vessels were destroyed or damaged, 36,235 boat engines were lost or damaged beyond repair, and 1.7 million units of fishing gear such as nets, tackle and similar equipment were destroyed.
The agency estimates that the cost of repair to infrastructure and harbours would be about 151 million euros ($200 million).
But many civil society organizations are concerned that the EU proposals will have further disastrous effects on local fishing communities. They say the proposal does not specify who will receive the boats and who will have control over the catch.
The FAO, which has been designated aid coordinator in the affected area, says it has received no requests from the countries in the area for boats, and warns that the EU proposals must not lead to "a harmful build-up of excessive fishing capacity."
The FAO fisheries department says excessive capacity was a serious problem in some of the region's coastal fisheries before the disaster, and insists that this should be avoided with reconstruction.
"Clearly, fisheries in the affected countries are in need of extensive reconstruction," said Ichiro Nomura, FAO assistant director-general for fisheries.. "But if new fishing vessels and equipment are brought in from outside the region without careful planning there is a real risk that excess fishing capacity will be the result, and that more harm will be done than good." Over-fishing can hurt fish stocks, causing fisheries to collapse.
"Keeping fishing efforts in balance with what local fish stocks are capable of sustaining will help guarantee the continued productivity of the region's fisheries, so that future generations can rely on them for food and income," said Nomura.
The environmental group WWF is also concerned that the boats are not suitable for local fishing communities. It says European fishing boats are very different from Indian, Indonesian or Sri Lankan coastal vessels, and this could lead to serious changes in local fishing practices.
"For example, in the tsunami-affected region most fishermen operate individually in small boats, not in crews," WWF said in a statement. "Therefore the use of European vessels would require different systems of working with owners and workers."
WWF is urging the EU to support domestic boat-building industries instead. "The rebuilding of devastated fisheries and aquaculture sectors in the area should be done not by introducing second-hand fleets and inappropriate technologies, but by supporting domestic boat-making industries and providing sustainable timber to build boats and crafts similar to those lost," it said.
Alternatively, WWF says the EU should provide technical assistance for fishermen to ensure that they can use the new boats, understand how they work, how to maintain them and how the gear they carry actually functions.
The group says training would also avoid a situation where fishing communities re-export the boats instead of learning unfamiliar fishing methods.
"We know that the European Union wants to act in the most generous way possible, but we urge the EU institutions to ensure that this will not harm the local communities, nor increase pressure on the region's marine resources," said Gilly Llewellyn of WWF's Asia Pacific marine program.
"There are past examples of where large foreign aid negatively impacted local industries, so any modernization of the coastal fisheries must be coupled with a targeted and appropriate strengthening of the management capacity at local level," she added.
Green members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are urging the EU to send aid to allow new vessels to be built locally. "Local fishermen do not want our old boats," Monica Frassoni, co-president of the Greens in the European Parliament said Feb. 23. "We should be carefully listening to the local communities and providing them with what they ask for. These communities need our help, not our junk."
The Commission proposal, she said, "perpetuates the ignoble EU tradition of getting rid of excess capacity; this time using development aid as a guise."
The Commission's proposal is due to be adopted through a special 'urgency procedure' which does not require debate with the European Parliament's relevant parliamentary committees, or consultation with civil society organizations in the affected countries.
But a coalition of European and South Asian non-governmental organizations (NGO), including Eurostep, Novib (the Dutch arm of Oxfam), Concern, the South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE) and the Indian Center for World Solidarity, is urging MEPs to reject use of the urgent procedure so that the proposal can be considered in more detail.
In a letter to key MEPs, the NGOs say the European Commission should discuss the proposals with the European Parliament and civil society organizations, particularly those directly representing fishing communities in South and South East Asia who were affected by the tsunami.
"The old fishing boats have been built for the European fishing industry. They will not necessarily be suitable for local fishing industry around the Indian Ocean," Simon Stocker of Eurostep told IPS Feb. 23.
"In any case poor people would not have access to the boats, but when they worked they would be potentially capable of taking larger catches, thus increasing the competitive position of fishers who are relatively wealthy," he said. "Being old they will require more maintenance, and replacement parts are likely to be impossible to obtain."
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