marine fisheries in Southeast Asia

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Executive summary

Using the information in Butcher (2004)1 and other sources, a review of the history of development of the major industrial marine fisheries in Southeast Asia has been undertaken. The production methods and fisheries considered were: (a) pearling; (b) trawling; (c) purse seining; (d) shrimp trawling; (e) tuna longlining, poling and purse seining; (f) driftnetting; (g) trolling; and (h) other industrial fishing operations, including failed types of industrial fishing. For each of these production methods and fisheries, the main features of the history of development from about 1850 to the present day are highlighted with some commentary on their current status.

In examining the history of fisheries development, the common feature is that of a boom-and-bust development where, one by one, stocks and habitats were exploited by new or improved fishing techniques to supply a rapidly increasing regional population and developing export markets. In all areas, this exploitation was done in an often uncontrolled, unregulated manner. When stocks were depleted by these new fishing methods, fleets moved on to the next area or stock. This sequential plunder also occurred across fisheres as the declining economic performance of one fishery spurred the transfer of vessels and fishers to a new, developing fishery (very often with government assistance) which in its turn also declined.

For example, trawling began with sailed-powered beam trawlers operated by Japanese fishers in the early 1990s. With the change to diesel-powered vessels in the 1930s, concerns about the status of stocks were already being made and the fleet expanded into other trawl grounds in the Philippines. Japanese fleets were also active in waters around Taiwan Province of China, the South China Sea and the Tonkin Gulf off Viet Nam. The trawling technology was exported from the Philippines to Thailand by a joint Thai-German Government initiative in the early 1960s. This was so successful that soon demersal stocks in the Gulf of Thailand were under pressure and this led to an expansion of the fleet’s fishing activities to other areas in the region. This expansion of the Thai trawlers to other areas also prompted parallel industrial-scale developments in other countries, most notably Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula. This expansion has been characterized by often violent conflicts with small-scale fishers in a number of areas.

However, soon demersal catch rates were in decline in most areas and there were few if any new areas into which demersal trawling activities could be expanded and, by the 1970s, Thai vessels were being converted to (and being built for) purse seining to take small pelagic species in the Gulf of Thailand. There, the landings of these species increased by more than eight times in the first few years of the 1970s. However, like the development of trawling, both in Thailand and elsewhere, the expansion into purse seining in the region was essentially unregulated and it was not long before the small pelagic species being targeted were being either overexploited or had suffered significant price declines as a result of oversupply. By the early 1970s, this expansion of the industrialized purse seine fishery had been so dramatic that it was the dominant form of fishing in several countries, including Indonesia and the Philippines.

Declines in catch rates and also of prices of small pelagic species prompted further development and expansion, this time into tuna purse seining in the late 1970s to supply the newly-evolving regional tuna cannery capacity, most particularly that in Thailand. Tuna fishing throughout the region has since expanded in the now-familiar pattern and, by 1991, the vast majority of tuna supplied to Thai canneries came from the activities of purse seiners in the waters of other countries of the region. However, again concerns are now being expressed about the status of some regional tuna stocks.

The point was therefore reached more than a decade ago where there were very few new, underexploited areas for fleets to move to within the region and very few new types of fisheries or species that fleets could transfer to, and this remains the situation today.

The challenge for the countries of the region in the future is, therefore, for the first time to manage existing fisheries resources and their fisheries for long-term sustainability. This will require not only the introduction of enforceable management measures but a restructuring of the industry to address current overexploitation, greatly enhanced regional cooperation in fisheries enforcement, data collection and research and, most importantly, a vast improvement in the quality and quantity of regional and national fisheries statistics upon which informed management and development decisions can be made.

1 Butcher, John G. 2004. The Closing of the Frontier: A History of the marine fisheries of Southeast Asia c.1850-2000. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore, 442 pp.

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