Declining fish stocks in the southwest Indian Ocean have prompted the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to set up a panel to promote the development of fishery resources in the region.
Fish is the main source of food for thousands of African communities living along the continent's eastern and southern coasts, and a major source of revenue for countries like Mozambique, but recent research has shown that stocks are under considerable pressure.
The South West Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission (SWIOFC) will function as an advisory body to promote the sustainable development and utilisation of coastal fishery resources, said panel secretary Aubrey Harris.
FAO studies have determined that 75 per cent of fishery resources in the West Indian Ocean - where SWIOFC will operate - were currently being fished to their maximum biological productivity, while the remaining 25 percent were over-exploited and required better management.
Mozambique, Madagascar, South Africa, Mauritius and Seychelles are the Southern African representatives on the new 14-member Commission, which will also promote responsible management and regional cooperation on fisheries policy.
"Fishes move - they know no country boundaries - which is why we need countries to sit at the table and constantly discuss issues around this sector," Harris noted.
At its first meeting, held last month in Kenya, the SWIOFC agreed to prepare a discussion paper on the status of fisheries development in the region during the past 20 years, and "its contribution to food security and poverty alleviation," he said.
The commission will also establish a scientific committee to focus on data collection. FAO statistical reviews showed that as much as a third of catches in the region were not identified by species, making analysis of the status of stocks and responsible management difficult.
Other issues that had been brought before the commission included concerns around "ecolabelling", Harris said. Companies voluntarily applied for "ecolabelling", an environmental performance certification that identifies a product as being environmentally friendly, and this option would also be available to the SWIOFC members.
"But there are several problems with it - many countries do not have the capacity or resources to opt for such labelling," explained Harris, which could result in discrimination against their products.
The development of shrimp fisheries in Mozambique and Madagascar, which each produce a significant 10,000 tonnes annually, had also been brought before the commission. The SWIOFC will draw up a list of strategies to help these countries maximise their profits from the sector.
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