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Maps Ignore Lakes and Lagoons

By Diego Cevallos*

Around a thousand bodies of water do not appear in the cartography of Central America, according to the preliminary results of a new study to which Tierramérica had access.

MEXICO CITY - At least a thousand natural reservoirs, lakes and lagoons -- where fishing activity is growing unregulated -- are not recorded on the maps of Central America, according to the preliminary results of a new study.

The cartographic registries indicate there are 515 bodies of water in the region, but in reality there are 1,500, and they cover around 15,000 square km, says the study conducted by PREPAC, the regional inland fishing and aquiculture project, whose final conclusions will be released in March.

Existing Central American maps indicate the existence of some lakes that have long since disappeared due to poor environmental management, but ignore others that do exist today. Furthermore, there is minimal socioeconomic information about the people who make use of these bodies of water, says PREPAC.

''We have discovered that there are more bodies of water than are registered, and that in many there is overfishing, and in others, environmental destruction,'' Mario González, PREPAC director, told Tierramérica. PREPAC is part of the intergovernmental Fishing and Aquiculture Organization of the Central American Isthmus.

The population around the inland bodies of water is growing rapidly. At least 45,000 people from the poorest social strata in the region seek sustenance in these areas.

''There is increasingly more population around those bodies of water, where fishing is practically unregulated and there are no management plans,'' González said.

In Latin America, regulations for fishing in inland waters are practically non-existent. As such, observers consider the PREPAC study a landmark, and hope that management plans can be derived from its conclusions.

''Due to the problems in the marine fishing industry and the poverty of farmers, many poor residents are turning to the lakes for food,'' González explained.

Norberto Romero, president of the Central American Confederation of Artisanal Fishing, supported that statement.

''Many of my colleagues can no longer find work at sea, and they have gone inland to seek other places to fish,'' he said in a conversation with Tierramérica from his offices in El Salvador.

For example, in the Cerro Grande reservoir in El Salvador, the number of fisherfolk grew from 600 in 1990 to 4,000 in 2004, with no management plan in place.

Sea fishing along the entire Central American coastline has been on the decline in recent years due to overfishing and other devastating practices, including the use of dynamite and poison, or non-specific nets, which capture all sorts of species, killing non-profitable species and immature fish.

The region has 6,603 km of coastline, or 12 percent of the Latin American and Caribbean total.

Along these shores lives 21.6 percent of the Central American population. They represent sectors that mostly have been sliding into poverty because of environmental degradation and shortage of fish. Nevertheless, the fishing industry continues to generate 750 million dollars in revenues annually and some 200,000 jobs.

Various studies show that the use of explosives and other unsustainable fishing methods continues, despite government efforts to regulate or eliminate such practices.

''A large part of the exhaustion of the fish supply occurs because industrial fishing operations use harmful methods. It is the companies, not the small fishing operations, that are depleting the wealth,'' said Romero.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, a third of the Mesoamerican (southern Mexico and Central America) shores face serious threats from overexploitation of resources, high concentration of road, port and petroleum infrastructure, and pressure from fishing activities.

* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.

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