As part of the Sea Around Us reconstruction of worldwide marine fisheries catch, we always end up comparing our results to the data supplied to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) by its Member Countries; statistics which eventually make their way to us through FAO’s software FishStatJ. It is these official catches that we complement with what is missing, e.g., industrial discards, subsistence catches, illegal catches of various sectors. Although this approach does not assume by default that these official data are wrong (but rather lacking to account for non-commercial sectors), it often has to face a certain degree of controversy. This is particularly true while attending official meetings.
Just when I thought I had managed to go through the most challenging meetings I could ever have to attend with regards to catch reconstructions — i.e., facing government officials supplying the original data to FAO — I had the immense honour to go to FAO’s headquarters in Rome, Italy, to present some key findings of West African catch reconstructions at the Second Symposium on Fishery-Dependent Information, on March 3-6 2014. This symposium was designed for “resource managers,
scientists and the fishing sector [and focused] on the collection and interpretation of information in the context of the ecosystem approach”. I was there, stepping upon the previously known great empire of Julius Cesar. Or at least, what remains of it — lots of ruins and valuable rocks. This reminded me that too much power and expansion often leads to losing control and ultimately collapse, an interesting analogy to present day fisheries.
Although the conference — I thought — was largely at the disfavour of the developing countries, the very fact that a ‘fisheries dependent data’ conference was organized and included a fair number of colleagues from developed countries meant a great deal to me with regards to the global effort of the Sea Around Us: “You may be rich, but you still depend on fisheries catch data — just as any other developing country.”
I was really surprised to see that our methods — although more global in scope — were reproduced at very local scales and were generally welcomed. This certainly contributed to de-emphasizing the controversy and putting the emphasis on interpreting the results, where it always should have been.
I was privileged to be one of the very few people to talk about West Africa, or should I say Africa at all. Accompanied and supported by Angela Bednarek (from The Pew Charitable Trusts), the talk went smoothly, and questions issue, i.e., reduce that uncertainty. These issues were particularly apparent with poor countries, notably those of Africa, and the situation of having developed countries over- represented did not help. I, about common issues, e.g., uncertainty and lack of data, were not raised. Apparently, these issues were common for everyone in the room; a room filled with senior FAO staff members, so I used this opportunity to introduce myself.
A brief encounter with one of these senior FAO staff member was most surprising. I was told things such as “we saw that official landings were increasing sharply in some islands, and we discovered that some countries were adding 6% every year, which is very dubious”, or “some countries even question the very fact of supplying data to us”, or “a lot is missing from their data”. So it was clear to me that even FAO staff members are perfectly aware of — and understand — the issues that we are dealing with on a daily basis, and that a ‘zero’ is the worst possible estimate for a sector that may well not be marginal at all.
Yet — and ironically-enough — this uncertainty appeared to vanish when I mentioned that the catch reconstructions by the Sea Around Us are meant to address this very
for one, felt that it was unfair for Africa, along with other developing regions of the world, to be under-represented despite the immense efforts of the organizers and the hosts. We often think we know what to do when we have the money and capacity to monitor fisheries, but we have to start accepting alternative solutions for the other, less wealthy countries.
The next meeting where there will be opportunities to continue these discussions will be on the occasion of the meeting of the Committee on Fisheries (COFI) in June, described in the FAO website as “the only global inter- governmental forum where major international fisheries and aquaculture problems and issues are examined and recommendations addressed to governments, regional fishery bodies, NGOs, fishworkers, FAO and international community, periodically on a world-wide basis”. Hopefully, this will provide the opportunity for starting a more sustained collaboration.
Data-poor fisheries in West Africa: Past, present and…future? presentation “powerpoint file”: