by John Barton, Director of Fisheries, Chairman of FENTAG

The Falkland Islands comprise two main Islands (East and West Falkland) and several hundred smaller islands, with a total land area of approximately 4,700 square miles (12,173 square km), comparable in area with Northern Ireland but spread over a much greater extent. The distance from Stanley, on the extreme east, to New Island, on the extreme west, is some 148 miles (238 km). The coastline is deeply indented and there are a number of inland waters. Topographically the Islands are generally hilly with the highest point being Mount Usborne at 2,312 ft (705m) in East Falkland. Inland, the ground is covered by low shrub, coarse grasses and ferns, with lichen-covered outcrops breaking the landscape.

The Falklands are still very much associated with sheep farming which has been the main economic activity for most of this century and for much of the previous one. It is only since 1987, when a fisheries conservation zone of 150 nautical miles was introduced (subsequently extended to 200nm), that the sale of fishing licences to foreign vessels has been the mainstay of a much expanded economy. As the twentieth century draws to a close, the Falklands has opened an oil licensing round. The prospect of oil, if it is found, will bring a welcome opportunity to diversify the economy, however, it also brings concerns about the impact on the environment and possible conflict with the existing fishing industry.

The Fishery

Up until 1987 the Falklands had a three mile territorial sea, consequently foreign fishing vessels were able to do pretty much as they pleased. The introduction of a fisheries conservation zone enabled the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) to limit the number of vessels and to derive revenue from the sale of licences. The marked effect on FIG’s revenue is shown in Table 1. In addition to restricting fishing effort a number of technical conservation measures were introduced to assist with preserving stocks for the long-term.

One of the unusual features of the Falklands Fishery is that squid is the most important resource both in terms of value and volume. Two species are the subject of commercial fisheries. Loligo gahi is the smaller species (12-14cm mantle length), and is fished primarily by 20 European stern trawlers with much of the catch destined for Europe. The larger species of squid is Illex argentinus with a mantle length of 25-30cm. This is fished primarily by squid jigging boats from the Far East (Korea, Japan, Taiwan), where the main market for this species exists. Some 80 jigging vessels operate in the fishery together with a small number of European trawlers. Table 2 provides details of catches in recent years.

Responsibility for managing and controlling the fishery rests entirely with FIG. The Fisheries Department in Stanley has its own scientific section, and Imperial College, London, has been contracted since the licensed fishery commenced, to provide advice on resource assessment and management. The British Antarctic Survey has also carried out contracted research on the biology and life cycle of the commercial squid species. Fisheries Protection is undertaken by FIG using two Britten Norman Islander aircraft (maritime versions) and either one or two offshore patrol vessels chartered from a UK company.

The fishery has run quite successfully since 1987 and this year has seen record levels of Loligo squid catches for a number of vessels. The story on Illex is more variable, however, as this species is more complicated to manage. Whereas Loligo occurs almost exclusively within Falklands conservation zones, the Illex stock is shared with the Argentinians and also extends beyond 200 miles where it is fished as well. A fisheries commission has been set up between Argentina and Britain (with Falklands participation), which meets to discuss and make recommendations to try and achieve better conservation of shared resources. Joint research cruises involving British and Argentine scientists are also undertaken. Catches of Illex in Argentine waters have however risen dramatically in recent years. The total fishing effort directed at Illex in the Southwest Atlantic is too high and will need to be reduced if the fishery is to be sustained. In this context the successful conclusion of the UN conference on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks is welcomed in the Falklands.

Apart from deriving revenue through licensing foreign vessels, FIG has a policy of encouraging the growth of a domestic fisheries sector through joint ventures, and other arrangements. Seven trawlers have transferred to the Falklands register with part ownership of vessels by Falklands companies. The largest has a GRT of 2511, length of 87 metres and crew of 50.

Oil and the Environment

Despite the success of the fishery and the additional economic activity it has created, the Falklands economy remains somewhat fragile being heavily reliant on world squid and wool prices. The likelihood of oil exploration raises the prospect of some economic diversification but considerable concern has been expressed about the potential environmental consequences.

The main impact on coastal and marine areas at present is that of the offshore fishery. Water quality around the Falklands is generally very good with little evidence of pollution. Marine debris is evident on several beaches, some of which clearly originates from fishing vessels. Much of the spectacular wildlife is concentrated on the coastal fringe. This includes a large number of seals, sealions and seabirds. Some of the seabird populations, such as those of the Black- browed albatross and Rockhopper penguins are of global importance. The wildlife and scenery attract a small number of tourists each year, which is becoming an important industry in itself.

In order to address concerns about the environmental impact of oil, FIG has set up the Falklands Environmental Task Group (FENTAG). The group includes noted local conservationists, Falklands Conservation and civil servants with relevant experience. The remit of the group is to provide advice to the oil management team on environmental issues as requested, and to set up a baseline survey and subsequent monitoring.

Tenders were invited to undertake the first phase of baseline survey work and the contract was awarded to Brown & Root Environmental and Imperial College Consultants Ltd (ICON). Falklands Conservation is named as an active participant in the project team and will have specific areas of responsibility. Work will commence almost immediately for completion by 1997. A desk study will collate all information known about the coastal, shallow marine and offshore environments. It will include habitats, species of ecological importance and sensitivity, and optimum sites for further marine survey work.

Field surveys of the shallow marine environment (between high tide mark down to 30m depth) will be undertaken. This will identify key species and, possibly, types of substrate for subsequent analysis of existing levels of hydrocarbons, heavy metals and other pollutants, and those species which might be particularly susceptible to pollution incidents. It will be asked to highlight species relevant to commercial or recreational fisheries. A littoral (shoreline) survey will also be conducted and co-ordinated with the shallow marine survey.

A data recording and collation system will be established which will include the development of a sophisticated Geographic Information System (GIS) for the islands. It is hoped that the surveys and resulting GIS will set a baseline to identify environmental trends not just to assess any impact from development of an oil industry, but also from fisheries, tourism and other aspects of environmental change.

A further area of concern is the potential effect of seismic surveys on squid. A certain amount of work carried out elsewhere has shown that seismic surveys can have an effect on some fish stocks and marine mammals. It is unclear whether squid, which do not have swim bladders and may therefore be less susceptible, will show the same reactions. Areas and timing restrictions on seismic activity are likely to be imposed until such time as some trials to assess the effect of seismic noise on squid can be arranged. Loligo squid occur all year round in Falklands waters and cannot be avoided by any restrictions on timing of surveys. Consequently, the tranches offered in the first licensing round have not encroached on the main areas where Loligo is distributed.