Dawes

Puerto Rico: Threat Looming for Aquarium Fishery

FIGURE CAPTION

An uncertain future faces the marine betta (Calloplesiops altivelis) and its Puerto Rican relatives.

Photo:  George Berninger Jnr. – Photo Reproduced in Accordance with Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

News is beginning to emerge as I write that could result in a huge threat for the Puerto Rican aquarium fishery. It has been announced that attempts are under way to establish a marine park taking up the entire western waters of Puerto Rico, which would incorporate 80% of the collecting area worked by local fishers.

The move, apparently instigated by the environmental group, Pew Charitable Trust, could, conceivably, result in the total wiping out of the island’s aquarium fishery. The great fear is not so much the establishment of a park – which could result in controlled, but manageable, collecting regulations – but that the area could be turned into a marine sanctuary instead. This would end up either imposing strict (or unworkable) conditions on the fishers, or, even, the total prohibition of collecting within the protected waters. Compounding matters is the further concern that the decision could be taken without sufficient or appropriate consultation with all stakeholders, or with representation heavily skewed in favour of the environmental lobby.

Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources is setting up a Governing Board to oversee the whole process, something that would not normally be seen as unreasonable, as long as all stakeholders are equally represented. But, if the details which are emerging are accurate, this is not the case. There will, apparently, be 15 seats on the Governing Board, with only one going to each of the three groups of fishers: ornamental, lobster and spear fishermen. So, whichever way one views these figures, the ornamental marine sector will be overwhelmingly outnumbered, being represented by just one member. This would, obviously, place this person in the unenviable position of arguing alone in favour of the sector, while no fewer than 12 seats will be taken up by activists and ‘other stakeholders’. It is not clear who these other stakeholders are, but, it would not be unreasonable to guess that, besides government officials, there will be representatives from the travel/tourist industry, recreational divers’ groups, etc.

The Pew Charitable Trust “uses evidence-based, nonpartisan analysis to solve today’s challenges.” The Trust “applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public, and invigorate civic life.” Under its priorities, it states: “Informed by the founders’ interest in research, practical knowledge and public service, our portfolio includes public opinion research; arts and culture; civic initiatives; and environmental, health, state and consumer policy initiatives.” Pew “will therefore build partnerships with countries to help them integrate coastal wetlands and coral reefs into their commitments and explore scaling this approach to substantially reduce the rate of coastal habitat loss.” (See Further Reading).

A few years back, the Pew Charitable Trust funded a series of interviews with fishers, government workers, environmental organization staff members and others, and found “widespread concern for the health of fish species and agreement that better coordination is needed between fisheries managers and those who work on the water.”  The interviews also revealed that “Western Puerto Rico fishers are worried about the state of their marine ecosystem and want to play more of a role in fisheries management.” Further, “The commercial fishers interviewed perceive management practices as unjust, believing that enforcement is arbitrary and regulations are lopsided against them. They have a general distrust of research and scientific data.” Fishers are also “confused by sometimes conflicting goals, communications, and rules put out by state and federal regulators.”

In summary, we, obviously, have a situation that is calling out for analysis and workable solutions. The information put out by the Pew Charitable Trust all sounds constructive at this stage. However, the mere fact that the ornamental aquarium sector is going to be so under-represented within the Governing Board, allied to our experiences with other marine fisheries, most notably Hawaii, Fiji and Indonesia, should give us cause for concern that non-evidence-based criteria might generate the type of undesirable inertia seen elsewhere. Or, perhaps I’m wrong, and things will work out to the benefit of all parties concerned. Time will tell.

FURTHER READING

For full details of the Pew Charitable Trust and its activities, visit: www.pewtrusts.org

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Ornamental Fish International (www.ofish.org) for alerting me to the above situation.