Fishing for Economic Growth. Canadian company helps third-world nations exploit expanded ocean resources

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A SMALL group of fisheries experts here are frequently flying off to a balmy Caribbean island or a coral-sheathed speck of land in the South Pacific. Great? No, says Garry A. Comber, secretary-treasurer of the International Centre for Ocean Development (ICOD) here. The experts do like their work - helping the small island nations or other developing countries on the West Coast of Africa exploit their ocean resources. But the travel is by now ``a bore'' for most of them, even though Halifax is cold and damp at this time of year.

ICOD is a tiny crown corporation (state-owned company) set up by the Canadian federal government in 1985 to help some of the world's poorer coastal nations manage their ``exclusive economic zones.''

As a result of the Law of the Sea Convention signed in 1982, that zone extends as far out as 200 miles from shore. Many an island nation or other poor country suddenly found itself with jurisdiction over a vastly enlarged ocean area and a new economic opportunity.

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This agency has a staff of only 35 and a budget of some $8 million, minuscule compared to Canada's foreign aid budget of about $2.7 billion (Canadian: US$2.3 billion). But Mr. Comber sees ICOD as having an important impact on economic development.

``Small amounts of money carefully placed give a good return,'' he says.

The developing countries of the world haul in just more than half of the world's catch of about 80 million tons. Indeed, fish has been described as the ``meat of the third world.'' It is regarded as the best protein supplement for poor people. About 60 percent of the 4 billion people in developing countries derive 40 percent or more of their annual protein from highly nutritious fish.

The world's catch is expected to rise to about 100 million tons by the end of the year and level off. The catch must be limited if the fisheries are to reproduce themselves successfully.

However, most of the growth in catches is expected to occur in developing countries. Africa's west coast, for example, has a fishing potential estimated to be three times as large as the present annual catch. The ICOD targets 14 countries there for assistance.

Canada, with the longest coastline in the world and a huge fishing fleet of its own, has much fishing expertise to offer. ICOD hires consultants and contractors when needed.

A few examples of projects illustrate how the ICOD works:

Foreign fishermen have traditionally exploited the rich tuna stocks in the waters surrounding the South Pacific island states. In 1979, the 16 states of the region formed a cooperative organization, the South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency, to assist these small nations develop and manage the fisheries resources in the millions of square miles around their islands.

ICOD was enlisted in 1985 to help them develop a more effective surveillance capability of these foreign fishing fleets. License fees and fines for violations can be an important source of revenues for these islands with their limited populations.

Courses were sent up for enforcement officers in navigation, seamanship, fisheries biology, safety at sea, and weapons. With the cooperation of the Australian and New Zealand air forces, patrol flights flew over the region's seasonal fishing areas, improving the sighting of foreign vessels. The United States signed a treaty with the agency requiring American fishing vessels to report when they enter and leave the region's exclusive economic zones.

Early this year, ICOD designed and delivered a French-language training course on ``tropical fish stock assessment'' in Dakar, Senegal, for 23 people selected from the 20 African nations belonging to the Committee for Eastern Central Atlantic Fisheries. Six observers from Madagascar, Mauritius, and the Seychelles joined in this one-month course on a special branch of fisheries biology which also involves mathematics, statistics, and computer science.

These 23 are expected to help manage and develop their nation's coastal fisheries resources.

Three geologists from Papua New Guinea, Cook Islands, and Tonga, representing the Committee for the Coordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Resources in South Pacific Offshore Areas, were brought to Halifax to attend a course on offshore mineral assessment and planning. The three then set up a similar workshop in Savu-Savu for representatives from 12 South Pacific countries.

``Canada has become a reasonably large player in the South Pacific as far as oceans are concerned,'' Comber notes.

ICOD also concentrates its efforts in the Caribbean basin, helping most of the island nations plus Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Belize. It is expanding its work in the southwest Indian Ocean - Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, Comores, Mauritius, and Madagascar.

``We are projecting greater growth in the future,'' Comber says. ``We feel that fish are a very underutilized resource.''

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