GENEVA - The United Nations environmental agency UNEP warned poorer countries that uncontrolled opening of their waters to subsidised fishing fleets from Europe and Asia could bring economic disaster.
It also hailed the inclusion of fishing issues into new negotiations under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as offering a golden opportunity to marry free trade with reducing poverty and protecting the environment.
"Fisheries represent to many developing countries....a real opportunity for economic development," UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer told a Geneva meeting on trade and fisheries.
But he warned they must ensure safeguards were in place if they were to avoid the problems of nations like Argentina, Senegal and Mauritania which had allowed in foreign fleets from European Union member states, Japan, South Korea and China.
In Mauritania, in western Africa, over-fishing had led to a dramatic fall in catches, badly hurt local fishermen and damaged the marine environment, UNEP said.
"Developing countries stand to gain a great deal from trade in fisheries products, but only if trade and fisheries policies are reformed to support sustainable management of these resources," UNEP economist Hussein Abaza said.
The meeting included experts from U.N. agencies, conservation bodies, the WTO and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
UNEP, the United Nations Environmental Programme, presented new reports on the potential for fishing development in Bangladesh and on the experience of Mauritania after opening up.
The reports followed similar studies showing the negative long-term impact uncontrolled foreign fishing had had on the economies of Argentina and Senegal.
Fish stocks in Bangladesh waters "could generate employment and millions of dollars of foreign exchange earnings for one of the world's poorest countries", UNEP said. But the experience of Mauritania, Senegal and Argentina "show that strict safeguards must be in place before fishing activities are increased, or foreign fleets invited in," a summary of the reports added.
For the past two decades, Mauritania had allowed EU, Japanese and Chinese fleets access to fishing grounds where key species were octopus and shrimp, and some 250 industrial, factory-style foreign vessels were now operating there, UNEP said.
But over-fishing by some outsiders had led to a dramatic fall in catches - especially of octopus which had declined by more than 50 percent in the past four years.
Local employment in the industry had also been hit, dropping from nearly 5,000 in octopus fishing in 1996 to some 1,800 this year.
EU boats, often from countries whose own offshore resources had been destroyed by over-fishing, were allowed to use smaller mesh nets than Mauritanian vessels, leading to large-scale capture of other species and damage to the marine environment.