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A new era for marine management

When the IDB invested $400 million in fisheries development during the 1970s, it was not alone in concluding that capital was the key to unlocking the ocean's riches. This was the era of fisheries euphoria, of mammoth factory ships and predictions that the sea's bounty would solve world hunger. International agencies, governments and respected experts urged more investments, bigger catches, more pursuit of "underutilized" species.

But it turned out that fisheries do not behave like most economic sectors, where more investment generally guarantees greater returns. Instead, bigger boats, longer nets, and sophisticated electronics have enabled commercial fishing fleets to pursue their quarry so relentlessly that many formerly abundant species have become seriously depleted.

As fish became scarcer, prices rose, and fishing intensified still further. In Latin American waters, more than 80 percent of commercially exploited fish stocks in the southwest Atlantic and 40 percent in the southeast Pacific are now fully fished or depleted. A large percentage of the catch, in some instances as much as 30 percent, is simply discarded as "by-catch" (species other than those being pursued).

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) subsequently concluded that the world fishing industry is "non-sustainable" and that "major ecological economic damage is already visible." Last February, 100 FAO member nations signed an agreement to control the size of their distant-water fleets by no later than 2005.

How many fish are there? How many can be caught without putting the populations in danger? Very little research was carried out to answer these and other questions about the long-term viability of fisheries investments. Wild fish stocks were considered--and still are in many quarters--as mere commodities to be "harvested," implying that they are somehow grown like wheat or cattle, instead of taken from the wild. In fact, fish are the only wild creatures still hunted on a large-scale commercial basis.

While ever-larger fleets were pursuing fewer fish with more technology, a similar pattern was unfolding closer to shore. There, artisanal fishermen with small boats and rudimentary gear (an estimated 900,000 of them in Latin America and the Caribbean alone) were selling to new and often distant markets. To survive, they had to maximize their catch and profits, usually by borrowing to buy better equipment.

Pressures were also building on the shoreline itself. Deforestation, intensive agriculture, mushrooming urban populations, tourism and port infrastructure development, in addition to intensive mariculture, have degraded coastal waters in many areas by increasing sediments, toxins and sewage and by creating other problems.

New approach. These lessons were not lost on the IDB and other international funding agencies. The large infrastructure loans they made in former years have been replaced with small, highly targeted projects to solve problems that were formerly overlooked, such as biodiversity, water quality and by-catch. Programs in such areas as coastal management, agriculture, rural development and infrastructure now often include conservation measures.

Since 1993, in addition to incorporating coastal management components into infrastructure loans, the Bank has lent some $60 million for coastal and marine resource management programs such as those described on these pages. But while moving in the right direction, the IDB was still operating in a virtual "policy void," according to Bank coastal and marine specialist Michele Lemay. Marine environmental problems, though less visible than terrestrial ones, are every bit as serious, she says, and the Bank needed a strategy that would set priorities for lending and improve the effectiveness of investments in coastal-related projects.

The strategy approved by the Bank's Board of Executive Directors last May is a comprehensive blueprint for marine and coastal management, founded on the concept of citizen participation integrated with research, monitoring and training. The strategy also addresses the need to reconcile competing interests among sectors such as tourism, industrial fisheries and mariculture, just as publicly owned forests are managed for multiple use.

In shifting the Bank's focus from development to management and conservation, the strategy calls for steps to limit fisheries access. With demand for fisheries products growing, Lemay says, "pressures from external markets are on a collision course with sustainable production."

In view of the conflictive nature of many of the problems besetting the coastal and marine environment, the IDB strategy assigns overall management responsibility to the state, but also recognizes that this responsibility must be shared by local governments, civil society and the private sector. Effective governance means transparent government, says Lemay: "Fair rules of the game in allocating land and resource rights are the best means of combating the corruption that has had such pervasive effects in the region in sectors such as fisheries."

Finally, the Bank strategy points to the need to strengthen the institutions charged with marine and coastal management. At present, lack of trained professionals means that technicians from developed countries often must be contracted to carry out projects. The strategy also advocates a shift in marine research in the region from basic sciences, such as taxonomy, to applied sciences that look for solutions to real coastal development problems.

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