Trawling in Venezuela. Was it wrong to ban it?

The headline of my last trip to Venezuela happened around fish and fishing. Fish is a basic part of a number of typical Venezuelan food recipes, so naturally I craved for it when I arrived. I went to a very traditional restaurant specialized in seafood in an affluent area of Caracas, when I asked for fried snapper and then grilled tuna and got a no for an answer because both plates were not available, I was kind of shocked, yet thought it was something of the tumultuous moments that Venezuela lives, maybe a matter of supply and demand. Nonetheless, I visited other restaurants just to find out that they were also out the fish dishes on the menu, or that fish was crazy expensive when compared to chicken and meat.  As the trip continued I adventured to food markets in both mid class and popular areas just to find out that there was almost no fish to buy. And what was really available was salmon, trout and other imported seafood at ungodly prices. People even laughed at me when I asked for canned tuna for example. Either it was inexistent, or when it was available it costed approximately 7%-8% of the current minimum wage. My favorite “sobremesa” topic was wondering what happened to the fish in a country with more than 2,700 kilometers of coast line?

I started a research on my own about the current situation of Venezuela’s waters, including the search of documents that could help me clarify which are Venezuela’s policies in terms of fishing in open waters. The results shocked me and that’s when I decided to deepen my research about this situation.

INEA is the national institute in charge of regulating everything regarding Venezuela’s aquatic spaces, this includes the bases of Venezuela’s fishing policies. INEA is supposedly part of the Infrastructure Ministry, but with all the shuffles existing and the lack of information online, it is still pending to confirm this. If you go to INEA’s website, you need a login and a password in order to pass the home page. I took the time to register and I didn’t find a single document establishing policies, or any additional information that could help me to see where we are in terms of fishing, no report, no press releases, nothing. It seems INEA’s website is an automated site for registering ships, seamen and everything related to Venezuela’s aquatic spaces but no information for the general public. Same happens with the website of the Infrastructure Ministry, which appears to be down as of October, 2015.

So I went back to my lawyer origins and talked to one contact of mine specialized in maritime law. What he was able to tell me from a legal point of view is that cases regarding local ships have declined in more than 80% (!) over the last decade. That was the first sign something was happening. Actually, according to him, the registration of new ships decayed over the last years, having most of the Venezuelan fishing fleet registering somewhere else, especially Panama. This would be king of obvious if we take the currency exchange control, but shouldn’t be all the reason for the fish scarcity. My lawyer contact, then suggested me to take a look to the current fishing law. This law was enacted in 2001 as one of the decree-laws passed by then President Chavez. Once you see the explanatory statements of this law, you get to see a little bit more the situation: the law gives preference to artisanal fishers, and fully prohibits trawling as a method of fishing.

Trawling, known in Spanish as “pesca de arrastre” is a fishing practice that consists in ships equipped with special nets that pretty much captures everything on its way. It is both very productive close to the shore or in the deep sea. Trawling has been going on in Venezuela for years, it was the main reason that Venezuelan shrimp was embargoed for a few years from international markets, as dolphins were dying caught on these nets, until it this trade ban was lifted some years ago

Still every other person that I spoke with about the fish scarcity told me that there is a lot of illegal trawling going on, especially from ships coming from Asia. The information in this case is very scarce other than news like this.

Trawling is not bad itself. Yes there are some practices around trawling which makes it controversial, mostly because smaller fish is also caught, and after the fish is dead, most times tossed back to the sea, as it cannot be industrially processed. Overfishing practices, including trawling have proved to decrease fish population.

In the other hand sustainable methods of trawling have been developed in other countries that enables consumers to find more fish to consume it at lower prices, without necessarily banning trawling. There are methods in which fish is planted in open waters, especially to be trawled and sold for human consumption. This doesn’t affect negatively the fish population, is ecofriendly and the most important, make fish cheaper and more available.

So why not propose to amend the Fishing Law to enable trawling as a part of a scheme in which we make efforts to give more options to consumers? If done properly is both ecofriendly and good to consumers. We need to aim for solving problems, and this is one we have to tackle, having all the coast line that Venezuela has. Opinions?

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