Uruguay turns its back on the sea: the fishing industry falls 49% in a decade | International
Uruguay has more maritime surface than terrestrial, but the richness of its waters is not among the priorities of the national agenda. The country, with 3.4 million inhabitants, prefers to look towards the countryside, where eleven million cows graze and soybeans grow on one million hectares. Meat and grain are the titans of the local economy, against which the sea and the fishing industry in particular have lost in research, development and productivity. This is reflected in a recent report from the CERES center, which accounts for the decline of industrial fishing in Uruguay, whose production fell by 49% in the last decade.
“The country has turned its back on the sea,” says Ricardo Fierro, a 61-year-old veteran sailor. Now retired, Fierro sailed more than 30 years on the high seas and witnessed the rise and fall of the fishing industry. In the port of Montevideo, he walks on the edge of an aging fleet of ships that have not set sail for weeks. “They are very old and do not have the necessary maintenance to operate,” he says. The age of the boats and their continuous ailments on the high seas explain part of the deterioration of this industry, which in 2011 employed 3,000 people and today employs 1,600.
According to the report, the Uruguayan fishing fleet went from having 124 boats two decades ago to 54 today. These boats have an average age of more than 35 years, when it is recommended to renew them every 20. "Aging is a problem that will only get worse over time," he remarks. Greater investment in the private fleet is necessary, says the research, but also to review the "ineffective regulations" that hinder productivity. In addition, it points to union conflicts and strikes -45 days in 2022- as another of the factors that have harmed the normal development of fishing.
Regarding the regulations, the president of the Chamber of Fisheries Industries, Juan Riva-Zucchelli, calls for the modification of the current fishing permit system, which only enables the capture of one species per vessel. “It's a limiting structure that could be improved if the ships had a multipurpose license,” he says. Under the current regime, there are larger boats authorized to fish for hake, smaller ones that have a license for croaker and whiting, while other boats –now almost non-existent- catch different species, such as tuna or octopus.
Within this framework, industrial fishing has focused on catching tons of hake, sea bass and whiting, 90% of which are exported. 2005 was an outstanding year: over 110,000 tons of fish were exceeded. However, that figure has fallen to an annual average of 40,000. According to the report, between 2011 and 2021 there was a 49% drop in production, due to labor difficulties and regulatory aspects. “The unions have been combative and have not understood that we are in the same boat,” says Riva-Zucchelli. For the businessman, these circumstances have caused the fleet to navigate an average of 190 days instead of 300 or more days a year, with the consequent drop in productivity.
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Life and work on the high seas, comments the sailor Fierro, have a singularity unknown to most Uruguayans. "Boats were made to be at sea, to be fishing and not stranded at the docks," he says in the face of criticism. He emphasizes that the work of the sailors is seasonal, so they only get paid if there is a catch. In addition, he explains that the work involves great physical exhaustion, with unlimited days, in conditions on board that are far from optimal. Added to the age of the boats, these peculiarities of the work on the high seas generate differences. “It is a controversial sector because the situations are complex,” he adds.
Another key aspect addressed by the report refers to the scant investigation of maritime resources and their potential use. Vila-Zucchelli recalls that Uruguay has a scientific vessel, the Aldebarán, but it has been damaged for more than two years and there are no signs that this will change anytime soon. In practice, the businessman continues, the Uruguayan observers leave on Argentine boats, which provide the necessary information to establish the amounts of catches allowed in the common fishing zone, shared by Argentina and Uruguay.
The reality of the Uruguayan fishing industry must be approached integrating different perspectives: ecological, social and economic, sums up Luis Orlando, a biologist specializing in fishing resources. “We must tend towards a participatory model so that the fishing sector, researchers and the administration work together”, he affirms. Orlando emphasizes that the fish population changes and adapts to the conditions of an area that receives hot currents from Brazil, another cold one from Argentina, and the discharge from the Río de la Plata. This does not always meet industry expectations. “It is a natural system, they are living resources and you have to understand them very well to be able to manage them”, he remarks.
CERES assures that, respecting the limits of the ecosystem, the Uruguayan fishing industry could increase its fishing volume for export by 123%. This would have an impact of $200 million each year and would result in the creation of more than 2,000 jobs. "(Uruguayan) fishing has a diversified insertion in international markets," he says. However, it warns of the risk of losing competitiveness compared to other countries with a more developed industry. In this sense, he recommends renewing the fleet, expanding and diversifying production to other species, as well as stimulating internal consumption.
This is probably the most arduous challenge of the Uruguayan fishing industry: getting Uruguayans to put fish on their table, the great stone guest in the local diet. The inhabitants of the eastern republic eat an average of 94 kilograms of meat a year (mainly beef) and only 7 kilograms of fish on an annual average. The task is daunting.
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