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Overfished Vietnam Subsidizes More Fishing Boats

There are a 100,000 fishing boats in Vietnam - too many, say conservation experts, who warn of overfishing in Vietnam's coastal waters. But Vietnamese fishermen are hurting from rising fuel prices. To help them, the government is offering subsidies to build even more boats. Matt Steinglass reports from Hanoi.

Deputy Agriculture Minister Nguyen Van Thang told Vietnamese fishermen this week that the government will lend them a hand.

Thang says any fisherman who buys a new boat with an engine of 90 horsepower or more will get a subsidy of about $3,500 a year.

Thang says the subsidies will help fishermen to switch to more powerful boats that can fish further from shore. He says they will also soften the pain of high fuel prices.

But the new policy seemed to contradict Vietnam's official strategy of shrinking its fishing fleet.

Vietnam has nearly a 100,000 fishing boats. That is far too many, according to wildlife experts like Keith Symington of the international conservation group WWF, who say stocks of fish are declining.

"In 2001, for tuna, on average 25 kilograms of tuna could be caught with 100 hooks on a long-line tuna boat. And in 2005, on average, that number's gone down to about 15. You have to fish harder to catch the same amount," said Symington.

Overfishing like this could severely damage Vietnam's fisheries.

"In scientific terms they call it serial depletion. Which means you'll eventually hit a point where there's no recruitment of baby fish," he added. "And then there's really a crisis. The fishery can become quickly commercially extinct."

Michael Akester is an agricultural consultant who helped Vietnam develop its fisheries strategy. He says the government has already agreed to reduce the number of small fishing boats.

"There is the master plan 2006-2010. That plan notes that it will attempt to reduce the number of fishing boats by about 40,000," said Akester.

But that was before fuel prices skyrocketed, devastating small fisher operations.

"Ten to 40 percent of these small boats are currently in port because they can't afford to fish, due to the high price of fuel," he said.

Le Van Dap, 58, is a fisherman who lives on Cham Island, off the central Vietnamese town of Hoi An. Dap says more than half of the fishermen on his island are staying home and finding other work.

Dap says fishermen on Cham Island only go fishing when they hear a school of fish is nearby. He says construction work pays three dollars a day, an adequate salary, while fishing pays almost nothing.

But fishermen who cannot find other work are desperate for help. While World Trade Organization rules bar direct government fuel subsidies, the plan to subsidize bigger boats, which can fish farther at sea, is allowed.

Deputy Agriculture Minister Thang also has implied the government may be backing away from the goal of cutting the fishing fleet by half.

Thang says the figure of 50,000 boats by 2010 needs to be adjusted. He says the Agriculture Ministry is asking the government to reconsider whether such deep cuts are necessary.

Akester thinks that is a mistake. First, he says, even the offshore fisheries near Vietnam have been depleted by big fishing trawlers from Japan and Spain, so the bigger boats are not likely to improve incomes.

And, he says, the government is missing an opportunity to move fishermen idled by high fuel prices into other industries, like aquaculture and marine transport.

Dap, for instance, earns more now than he ever did as a fisherman. He uses his boat to ferry tourists around his picturesque island home.

When you go fishing, Dap says, you do not know whether you will catch anything. But carrying tourists, he says, you know you will make money.