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Marluccius hubbsi, or Argentine hake.
Credit: Courtesy of Uruguay's National Directorate of Aquatic Resources
Accents
Argentine Hake On the Brink of Collapse
By Marcela Valente - IPS/IFEJ

Indiscriminate fishing has taken a heavy toll on the merluza, or Argentine hake, a species that once teemed in Argentina's seas.

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 7 (Tierramérica).- The Argentine hake fisheries of the southern Atlantic Ocean, among the world's leaders in the white fish market, are on the verge of collapse due to the indifference of the Argentine people, who are apparently more interested in beef, a staple of their diet.

"The collapse does not mean the species is going extinct, but rather that it is no longer profitable to fish for it, and that means a loss of jobs," explained Guillermo Cañete, coordinator of the marine program for the Argentine Wildlife Foundation.

But in addition to being an economic and social problem, the decline of the Merluccius hubbsi, known in Spanish here as "merluza," threatens food security and biodiversity, warned environmentalists on the eve of World Oceans Day, Jun. 8.

Cañete's figures show that hake fishing off the Argentine coast is still fourth in the world for white fish species, and first in the southern hemisphere.

However, this wealth is sharply deteriorating, according to the National Institute of Fishing Research and Development (INIDEP). For every 10 adult hake in 1986, there are now just two.

Younger fish have always been caught along with the adult hake, explained Cañete. However, even faced with the decline in fishstocks, the fishing companies have refused to use devices that would let smaller fish escape the nets, he said.

Today, more than 60 percent of the hake caught are juveniles. "If nothing is done, the hake will collapse shortly," warned the environmentalist, who also predicted "the first to disappear will be the fisherman."

The Wildlife Foundation issued a call this year for Argentines to avoid buying hake filets less than 25 centimeters long, in order to discourage the capture of small fish.

However, the problem is not just the domestic market. Fish consumption in this South American country is nine kilograms annually per capita, compared to 60 kilograms of red meat, mostly beef, according to data from INIDEP and other agencies.

But when Argentines consume fish, they do prefer the hake filet, which is relatively inexpensive at about seven dollars per kilo in Buenos Aires supermarkets.

The Merluccius hubbsi is Argentina's principal fish resource in catches, exports, domestic consumption and employment. Intense exploitation of the hake began 20 years ago, and today represents 40 percent of all foreign sales of fish, which total about one billion dollars annually, according to official figures.

QUOTAS AND CONTROLS IN QUESTION

The experts say that despite the creation in recent years of areas where fishing is banned, there is a marked decline in the number of adult hake, which threatens the reproduction of the species.

INIDEP reported the critical situation to the government in December and recommended quotas. As a result, the Federal Fisheries Council, made up of federal and provincial delegates, established the maximum catch this year at 290,000 tons, 10,000 less than in 2009.

But for environmentalists and small fishing operators alike, that volume is still alarming.

"In the last 20 years there haven't been clear regulations, and on top of that they were never obeyed," the regional secretary of the United Maritime Workers Syndicate, Néstor María, told this reporter.

"When I began fishing 27 years ago, we did between three and five trips to sea per month, and now it's half that," said the unionist, who is based in the Atlantic port of Mar del Plata, 400 kilometers south of Buenos Aires.

"To fill the boat's hold with 150 tons of fish, you have to stay out at sea 10 to 12 days each trip; while before it was three or four days, and we would return with big fish," he said.

According to official numbers, last year 280,000 tons of hake were caught, but María said that underreporting of catches is rampant, to the point that "we estimate the true catch at some 450,000 tons per year."

"Today there are about 20,000 jobs at risk at sea and on land," if one counts the workers on the boats, in the processing plants, driving the trucks and loading in the warehouses, he said.

The deputy secretary of fishing, Norberto Yahuar, admitted that there was a long period in which the use of fish size selecting devices was suspended in fishing for hake, but he said the issue had been resolved.

That was his response to criticisms from ecologists, who say that it has been a year and three months since the devices have been used, and indiscriminate and unregulated fishing continues.

Yahuar said the fishing companies had questioned the method recommended for catching hake.

In the end, the Federal Fisheries Council ruled that fishing operations had to implement techniques to allow juvenile fish to escape, starting Jun. 10, or face sanctions.

When asked about the lack of inspectors, the official said that in 60 days or so, a regulation could be enacted to require the boats to install video cameras to record the catches.

"The big problem was in the Gulf of San Jorge (located between the southern provinces of Chubut and Santa Cruz), where there is a hake nursery, and we found that shrimp fishing boats there were not using size selection devices," he said.

* This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by Inter Press Service (IPS), CGIAR/Biodiversity International, International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), and the United Nations Environment Program/Convention on Biological Di

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