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The Asian 2004 tsunami was probably the worst natural disaster in human memory because of the numbers of people affected, its extent and complexity. Much has been written about its impact on human life, communities and livelihoods as the countries affected and the international community grapple with the enormous task of rebuilding. In this context, the fisheries sector has featured prominently as one of the sectors most affected by the disaster; most effort has focused on the human toll and losses in fishing capacity. This study was funded by contributions from the Laotian people, diplomatic corps, international organizations, entrepreneurs, traders, residential expatriates, local provincial authorities and donors from different sectors of Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), as part of their tsunami assistance to the region. It focuses on the issue of whether fisheries resources were affected by the tsunami. The answer to this question is fundamental to efforts to recover fisheries livelihoods in the region.

Over 100 studies were assessed, including a range of anecdotal reports, rapid assessments and quantitative surveys and carried out participatory rural appraisals with fisherfolk in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the two most impacted countries. Where available fisheries data was also examined. Assessment of impacts was made on fished resources as well as on the ecosystems that support them and how humans have responded in terms of fishing effort.

The available evidence shows that overall, impacts of the tsunami on fisheries are more related to ongoing and new tsunami-related "human" factors, rather than the physical or biological effects of the disaster on resources and ecosystems. That is, existing overexploitation trends had already brought many of the fisheries under severe stress before the tsunami. Evidence from participatory rural appraisals of fishing communities suggests that when the tsunami struck, some of these resources may have been driven down further. Greater impacts on livelihoods are now becoming apparent, with oversupply of boats and gear in some locations, increasing fuel prices and lower fish prices, added to pre-existing issues concerning illegal fishing methods and fishing by foreign vessels.

Some localized biological impacts were reported in Indonesia and Sri Lanka and in other tsunami-affected countries. Where fished resources and supporting ecosystems were in poor condition, almost all researchers concluded that the effects were part of pre-tsunami trends. This included direct damage to resources, plus decreased resilience to the tsunami resulting from chronic degradation and misuse of resources. Rehabilitation of fisheries therefore needs to focus not on the effects of the tsunami, but on addressing pre-existing trends in resource use and environmental damage, including building resilience against future shocks.

The main recommendations of this study are that:

  1. Attempts at recovering fisheries resources should focus on management and issues that were present before the tsunami, including resource depletion and ecosystem degradation.
  2. Attempts to restore resources and ecosystems should go a step further and ensure that building resilience against future disasters is included in all strategies.
  3. In their present condition, fisheries in Aceh and Sri Lanka are not generally prepared to promote economic recovery. Governments should consider alternatives to fisheries for rebuilding livelihoods and their economies.
  4. Recovery of fisheries will also need to address the new "human factors" that have arisen since the tsunami. These include problems of increased capacity, rising fuel prices, declining fish prices, problems with transportation, changes in fishing grounds, financing, illegal fishing and conflicts with other rehabilitation programmes.
  5. There is an urgent need to address the pre-existing problems of weak institutions and enforcement in fisheries that have been exacerbated by the new problems arising post-tsunami. This will require increased capacity among institutions, including new skills to address conflicts among fisherfolk and industry, ensuring equitable and effective assistance to communities and innovative diversification of livelihoods.
  6. Replacement of boats and gear in affected communities needs better scrutiny and management. Problems of oversupply, inappropriate beneficiaries, replacing traditional boats with larger, motorized vessels and poor vessel quality urgently need addressing.
  7. The relationship between decreased or increased fishing effort after the tsunami and resulting changes in catch and catch/boat present an opportunity for further investigations on numbers of vessels for optimal yields.
  8. The direct impacts on fisheries resources reported by fisherfolk (for example anchovies/lobster in Sri Lanka) merit further study.
  9. Mechanisms for rebuilding fisheries livelihoods should remain flexible and able to adapt to lessons learned through regular monitoring of outcomes. This should include improved fisheries data management mechanisms and improved capacity in analysis.

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