Oil exploration link to reduced fish catch unproven
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A GROWING chorus of stories have raised questions about one of Guyana’s most important traditional industries. However, fishermen who have real worries about declining catches are pinning the blame on offshore oil operations. Few people would naturally assume that oil is somehow good for fish, so this is an easy story to swallow. But there are real questions that remain about this narrative and getting to the bottom of the real causes is crucial to preserving a historic and valuable industry.

Guyana’s fishing take rose throughout the 1980s and 1990s, reaching its peak in 2013 and then declining substantially through 2015—before oil production began. If fishermen are indeed seeing a decline since 2015, it would be critical to assess whether oil actually has a role or if the decline that began in the early 2010s, long before oil production, has simply continued to this day. Unfortunately, data is scarce and comprehensive analyses of fish stocks that could provide evidence one way or another are nonexistent.
But there are a number of other problems with the oil theory as well.

Guyana’s fisheries exist overwhelmingly in very shallow waters within a few kilometres of shore. Crucial species like shrimp live and breed in waters only a few metres deep and rely heavily on coastal mangroves. The Stabroek Block oil operations are more than 150 kilometres offshore in water thousands of metres deep beyond the continental shelf. This hardly seems like a plausible cause-effect relationship. Instead, there are several potential factors that could lend to [A1]the decline in catch unrelated to oil and gas exploration/development.

Other factors, like the rapid expansion of coastal infrastructure and modernisation, which impact mangroves that serve as critical breeding grounds, must also be considered. The global problem of overfishing and the aggressive behavior of many countries’ fishing fleets have also caused declines or population movements in many species.

An assessment of these conditions is crucial to understanding what is actually at play. While it is unfortunate that the previous government failed to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of ocean resources before oil production began, it is not too late to do so.

Examining the fish stocks themselves is also a vital step that Exxon is now taking. Studying the number of fish in a population and the stability and growth rates of that population is a much more accurate measure of the health of a species than the total weight or price of the fish that are caught annually.

The reality is that many of the world’s largest oil producers have traditionally had, and still have, large, thriving and well-managed fisheries. Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, among many others, all have offshore oil operations many times larger than Guyana’s and have huge and productive fishing fleets much larger than Guyana’s.

The common denominator of all these countries is that they actively manage their fisheries. Many have utilised agencies to set quotas and limits and carefully monitor fish populations. With these tactics, countries have brought back species like cod and sardines that nearly collapsed from overfishing and have created productive and sustainable fisheries.

Oil has not spelled the death of fishing in any of these places. And nor will it do so in Guyana.
There are strong fishing industries in places where even the worst kind of disasters have occurred like the Gulf of Mexico (Deepwater Horizon 2010). In fact, shrimp quotas allowed by the U.S.

National Marine Fisheries Service have increased 65 percent since 2007. A study from George Mason University found that the number of shrimp in the areas worst affected by the spill returned to normal just two years later and the overall population of shrimp throughout the Gulf actually rose from 2010 to 2011. Quotas were vital in saving shrimp from severe overfishing in the 1990s and have been instrumental in making it a major sustainable operation in the Gulf of Mexico.

Guyana should closely monitor and manage its fishery, putting appropriate systems in place to evaluate stocks and issue quotas. This can help offset the growing dangers of overfishing and the new processing plant, which opened in March and has increased Guyana’s shrimp exporting capabilities. That plant alone increased demand for shrimp by nearly 40 tonnes a day from around 50 tonnes per day last year. The Marine Stewardship Council previously recommended a maximum sustainable average catch rate of just over 54 tonnes/day for Guyana’s primary shrimp species and highlighted that Guyana was at serious risk of depleting shrimp stocks.

As baseline studies are being conducted, Guyana has a chance to also implement a monitoring and quotas system that can help the country to protect its fisheries long-term. That kind of comprehensive system to evaluate and manage Guyana’s key fish stocks going forward would go a long way towards preserving those for the future and helping to understand the real problems at play.

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