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Johannesburg Nets Fisheries Agreement

In the first substantive agreement at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, delegates agreed on a plan to try and protect the world's diminishing fish stocks. The pact calls for reducing catches to sustainable levels.

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Overfishing is affecting more than 70 percent of the world's commercially important fish

A deal was struck late Tuesday night in Johannesburg, aiming to replenish the world’s overfished waters by 2015 and head off a looming fisheries crisis. It’s the first concrete target date set at this summit where 200 nations have gathered to come up with an action plan to reduce world poverty without destroying the environment.

Environmentalists, who have been highly critical of the summit for its reluctance to set definite targets for reform, welcomed the fisheries plan, calling it a welcome advance.

“It’s pleasing that they have reached agreement on oceans,” Sian Pullen of the environmental group WWF told Reuters. “We would have liked it to be more progressive but it’s good compared to some of the other issues which may be going backwards.”

Catching Fewer Fish

The plan calls for reducing fish catches to levels where the maximum sustainable yield can be taken indefinitely. It gives governments a deadline of 2015 to restore fish stocks to sustainable levels. That could entail enacting temporary fishing bans in some areas or setting up permanent no-fishing zones to preserve breeding grounds.

According to the United Nations, more than 25 percent of the world’s commercially important fish stocks are overexploited and 50 percent are being fished to full capacity.

After pressure from the US, delegates agreed add a clause stating that fish levels should be replenished “where possible.” The Americans argued some stocks, such as cod on the Grand Banks of Canada’s eastern seaboard, are thought to have already been fished beyond recovery.

Enforcement Questions

While the agreement has buoyed delegates’ spirits, some environmentalists question whether the agreement can be enforeced against pirate trawlers. For example, the fish stocks off of Mozambique, South Africa’s neighbor, have been reduced by more than 70 percent in the last decade, thanks largely to fleets of Chinese and Tanzanian fishermen who invade Mozambican waters and dynamite all species. They come to the waters off the island nation because they have exhausted the stocks in their own waters.

“(The agreement) does recognize the need for enforcement but it doesn’t say how it’s going to be done. It’s a major issue and not one that’s been adequately addressed,” said the WWF’s Sian Pullen.

Like the other parts of the action plan that heads of state are due to approve when they come to the summit finale next week, the fisheries agreement is not legally binding. Proponents hope however that it will form a moral basis for action and keep governments under pressure from the public.

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