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Asia Dive News : Vietnam to half fishing fleet for coral reef protection

Vietnam plans to almost halve its coastal fishing fleet by 2010 to protect fragile marine resources that have been badly depleted by over-fishing, local officials and foreign experts say. Many of the 8,000 fishing boats to be decommissioned per year until 2010 could be sunk in the South China Sea to create new coral reefs that serve as breeding grounds for sea life, said one government marine biologist.

The combined catch of Vietnam's fishing fleet in the country's exclusive waters has surpassed the estimated sustainable level of 1.7 million tons per year, and some species have almost disappeared, the government says.

"Our experts tell us the situation is very serious and that we need to urgently find a solution," said Le Thiet Binh, conservation division chief at the Fisheries Ministry, commenting on the new five-year plan.

Over the past decade, Vietnam's fishing fleet has grown from less than 30,000 to more than 90,000 boats, and their average engine size has increased from around 20 to 60 horsepower, state media reports say.

Fisheries are a key industry for the developing country with a 3,200-kilometres (2,000 mile) coastline. Vietnam earned over 1.3 billion dollars from seafood exports in the year's first half, a quarter more than in the same period last year, Fisheries Minister Ta Quang Ngoc said this month.

But Binh said Vietnam had now decided to nearly halve the number of coastal boats from 2006-2010 to 50,000 vessels because "all the country's coastal fishing areas have been excessively exploited over recent years."

The catch per fishing trip had shrunk, reports said, with populations of herring, lobster, abalone and cuttlefish now seriously depleted and many fish, shrimp and crab species almost gone from Vietnam's coastal waters.

"Vietnam is following a general global trend," said Anders Poulsen, a capture fisheries management expert with the Danish International Development Agency advising the ministry.

"It's a well-known fact that most of the fisheries worldwide have been over-exploited, and governments are starting to recognise that."

The South China Sea had been especially hard hit, said Poulsen. "Particularly the larger commercial species associated with coral reefs have gone down drastically and the size of fishes and catches has been reduced. The capture is moving toward a lot of trash-fish used as animal feed."

Vietnam was now moving toward allowing coastal areas to recover while focussing on expanding its deep-sea fleet, he said. "It will not bring overnight results, but it's starting a process toward some sustainability.

"In the past the main priority has been to increase fleets, but now they are changing that attitude."

The ministry has asked coastal provinces to limit the building and registration of new fishing boats, and Vietnam plans to spend 16.8 million dollars to retrain fishermen in aquaculture and tourism, said state media.

"We are of course concerned that the people that will be affected are generally from poor communities," said Poulsen. "One of the activities will be to create other opportunities, including aquaculture."

Many of the sunken ships could be used to rehabilitate Vietnam's degraded coral reefs, 80 percent of which are at risk from pollution and destructive fishing practices, said marine biologist Professor Nguyen Chu Hoi.

Many reefs, considered by scientists the 'rainforests of the oceans' for their species diversity, have been destroyed by dynamite fishing and trawlers dragging nets across them.

The government could buy and sink about 1,000 of the decommissioned ships every year, Hoi, the director of the ministry's Institute for Maritime Economy and Planning, told the Vietnam News Agency.

Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines had expanded their coral reefs with similar methods, and Vietnam could follow suit, he said, stressing that "without coral reefs, the sea will be like a desert."

Source: AFP