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EU fisheries paper catches the drift

Richard Black | 15:40 UK time, Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The European Commission's green paper on reforming the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is about as honest a piece of analysis as you will see from a governmental body.

Stocks "have been overfished for decades", and the fleet remains "too large for the available resources". Overall poor performance - ecologically and economically - is "due to chronic overcapacity, of which overfishing is both a cause and a consequence".

Boat in harbourNarrow, short-term political concerns have led EU member governments to "request countless derogations, exceptions and specific measures" - a fragmented picture that makes sustainable management impossible.

The commission's headline statistics are scary: 30% of EU fish stocks are outside safe biological limits (ie at risk of collapse), and 88% are fished beyond their maximum sustainable yield (ie heading towards eventual collapse, and yielding less profit than they would if they were more robust).

For North Sea cod - the touchstone stock for UK consumers - 93% of fish are caught before they can reproduce. Yes, you read that correctly - 93%.

In fact, just about every facet of the green paper could have been written by one of the environmental organisations that have been publicising the parlous state of EU fisheries for more than a decade.

Except for one, and that's the most important facet of all - the solution.

I must try here to avoid lumping all environmental NGOs into one basket - they're as different as fishermen themselves - but it's not uncommon, shall we say, to read prescriptions that are entirely top-down - mandating quotas, mandating limits on days at sea, mandating types of gear.

All those things have their place. But among the commission's favoured solutions is something that has traditionally been anathema to many regulators and environmental groups alike - working with the industry.

To first borrow and then distort a famous phrase of the development movement: if you encourage a man to fish to abandonment, he will deplete the oceans in a day; but if you encourage him to fish for a sustainable profit, he will manage his stocks for a lifetime.

The logic is that if fishermen have an incentive to preserve stocks for a later day, they will. Some countries (including, among EU states, Denmark) have established transferable quota schemes, where fishermen are given the right to fish a portion of the stock for many years - perhaps for ever.

There are many variants of the basic idea, and it isn't a complete solution - but broadly speaking, the evidence from Iceland and New Zealand and the US and Australia is that it can be part of a solution.

There are other examples of initiatives that fishermen have taken to curb damage.

Voluntarily, skippers stay out of the Trevose Box, an area of sea off the Cornwall coast, in the spawning season.

In Scottish waters, the Real-time Closure Scheme, developed by the Scottish government and the fishing industry, is a flexible system whereby boats avoid - often at very short notice - areas where other skippers have reported high concentrations of young cod.

Broadly, the commission likes this kind of idea, encouraging what it calls Producer Organisations to develop ways of assessing stocks and regulating catches.

It won't work for every type of fisherman or for every type of vessel.

Within European waters you have everything from tiny in-shore boats worked by people who want their sons and daughters to follow them into the same local trade through to giant marine vacuum cleaners that can deplete one sector of ocean in a moment before moving on to the next, just like a Hollywood-derived alien race will flit from planet to planet, making each one's inhabitants a casual course in its never-ending cosmic luncheon.

One group has an interest in preserving the stock - the other's only reward comes through sucking up as much as possible - and there is every permutation in between.

Tuna processingThe green paper recognises the discrepancy; and although it doesn't say so in as many words, the outcome it wants would be to promote the small sustainable operations at the expense of the marauding big boys.

Altogether, asking fishermen to regulate themselves is an interesting concept. It's not straightforward; and governments, or some kind of agency that transcends narrow national political interests, will still have much to do, gathering and paying for scientific advice, setting overall rules and catch limits, inspecting and punishing transgressors.

But increased self-regulation is attractive, if only because, as the commission says, measures introduced in the last CFP reform in 2002 have failed in their overall goal of making European fisheries sustainable; so surely it's time for something else.

One other thing implicit in the green paper is the need to get away from simplistic, bombastic and nationalistic "solutions".

Exhibit A: "discards are wasteful, so let fishermen keep what they catch".

Of course discards are a huge waste - according to a recent WWF survey, almost 40% of the fish caught worldwide is thrown overboard - but the policy came in for a reason, namely that without discards, fishermen have just occasionally been known to venture out looking for something relatively worthless - take the humble sandeel as a hypothetical example - and entirely by chance come back with a lockerful of cod, exclaiming innocently "you mean it's 10 times more profitable than sandeels? Well blow me down, who'd a thought it?"

So fine; sort out discards - everyone wants it - but only if you can agree another way of regulating the catch of high-value items.

Exhibit B: it's all the fault of those darned foreigners.

Well, some of it is - the commission acknowledges as much, without naming names.

But in the real seas of real cheek-by-jowl Europe - where fish (believe it or not) actually swim from one country's waters to the next, where entire stocks may take themselves to a different locality as the waters slowly warm, and where owners of industrial-scale boats can transplant themselves from one country to the next in an instant - slicing and dicing the sea into discrete national areas may give the national flag a new rosy glow, but is surely as irrelevant to the real problem as a chocolate saucepan is to cooking ravioli.

To quote an over-used but still resonant phrase from the 1980s; the oceans are Our Common Future.

Those of us who do not often go down to the sea in boats need governments to regulate fishing well - not only for the sake of some abstruse ecology, but in order to keep seafood coming to our plates and to give fishing communities an extended living.

Nothing simple will solve it; any mix of measures that does solve it will almost certainly be too sophisticated to compress into soundbite form.

With its green paper, the commission has raised the spectre of a future where European seas have no fish - and, therefore, no fishermen.

It is now up to all players - governments, fishermen, academics, consumers, campaigners - to shed any layers of narrow self-interest they may carry, and throw their best ideas into the net.


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  • 1. At 7:19pm on 21 Apr 2009, JunkkMale wrote:

    More and more people chasing fewer and fewer natural resources.

    And it's having a deleterious effect.


    Must be a lesson there, as we await a green budget that also 'grows' the economy.

    Not sure building more houses to accommodate the accelerating population growth, on what's left of the countryside, is quite the best start.

    Remind me, does self-interest kick in before or after snagging votes to stay in power?

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  • 2. At 7:26pm on 21 Apr 2009, FellowCuckoo wrote:

    I'm delighted to hear that the Commission has finally come up with something sensible after decades of destroying fish stocks. The emphasis must be on supporting small, local fisheries and controlling, if necessary banning, the huge vessels that can net an entire shoal in a few minutes.

    I note your cautionary comments re discarding but, somehow, it must be abolished. 40% of fish caught being thrown away is an outrage. As well as killing the fish it also pollutes the sea bed with very harmful consequences to both fish and marine life generally. How about setting landing quotas for ports rather than boats, so that a fisherman who catches a species after his local port's quota is exhausted has to travel to another port, further afield, to land his by-catch? The cost in time, fuel and crew wages would discourage deliberate over-fishing but the fish caught would still be used productively.

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  • 3. At 8:21pm on 21 Apr 2009, yieldoffish wrote:

    The Danish minister have launched a concrete and comprehensive proposal for establishing sustainability and economic performance in the sector see

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  • 4. At 8:30pm on 21 Apr 2009, davblo2 wrote:

    Richard wrote: "Of course discards are a huge waste - according to a recent WWF survey, almost 40% of the fish caught worldwide is thrown overboard" with a link to a BBC news report.

    This is a rather more graphic report about fish dumping; (watch the video).

    All the best; davblo2

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  • 5. At 8:50pm on 21 Apr 2009, QinGuangWang wrote:

    Did you think we would only destroy the land and the air. Mankind has been able to defile everything he has touched and all in the name of progress. Everyone is trying to sneak out because the bill is due.

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  • 6. At 01:11am on 22 Apr 2009, greenNautilus wrote:

    The Green Paper is a very bold attempt at a comprehensive review of the CFP. The question is why should this attempt be more successful than previous ones? Let's try an optimistic answer. Finally there is a recognition that people cannot continue to fish beyond the limits of the ecosystem and that collectively fishermen are willing to take responsibility for their activities. Individually though, this is sometimes difficult to achieve. Many people in the industry have taken out huge loans to pay for their boats and gear and have to pay back the banks as well as making a living - and they do this by trying to increase fishing effort. Demonising fishermen will not help to reduce overcapacity, nor will impossibly complicated regulations. This is what happened in past reform negotiations and the upshot was continued decline with no real winners. But now things have changed to the extent that positive-minded NGOs such as WWF are able to work with progressive people from the industry. The rewards may be certified 'sustainable' fisheries products that will give comfort to wary consumers like me, willing to pay a little more for their fish if they are caught from sustainable stocks.

    But there are those that have not yet bought into this new way to help rebuild our trashed stocks. Firstly, there are unreported, unregistered and illegal fisheries, the so called IUU or 'black fish' that get into the market and then there are governmenta that will try to stonewall the progressive developments we are witnessing, often because of short-term popularism. The debate on the new paper will be interesting but is deeply important for the future of our seas. As consumers we need to be offered the opportunity to buy fish from certified stocks and may learn to avoid the often tasteless white blocks from the freezer. We also need to avoid the other end of the market, the irrational pursuit of the last blue fin tuna or trendy swordfish kebab.

    And while we are at it, let's give the European Commission some credit for once. This is a wake up call to all of those who share Europe's seas. It's up to the governments now. Watch this space....

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  • 7. At 1:18pm on 22 Apr 2009, jr4412 wrote:

    interesting, in a depressing sort of way, that there is no mention of reducing the level of technology, ie. outlaw vessels above a certain tonnage, prohibit use of sonars, or measures like that.

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  • 8. At 4:08pm on 22 Apr 2009, RickMcDaniel wrote:

    About time that humans face the fact, they have overpopulated themselves, to the brink of totally destroying the planet, in almost every way......with the killing of the world's oceans and food fish stocks, leading the way to Armageddon.

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  • 9. At 12:02pm on 24 Apr 2009, manysummits wrote:

    greenNautilus wrote in post #6:

    "And while we are at it, let's give the European Commission some credit for once. This is a wake up call to all of those who share Europe's seas. It's up to the governments now. Watch this space...."

    Wake up call - yes!

    In my researches on climate change, the two most frightening articles I came across had to do with the world ocean. One was on the "acidification" of the sea, the other on the depletion and projected "collapse" (technical term), of the entire, I say again, the entire world ocean fishery by the year 2048.

    These articles require a bit of energy to obtain, but for those with that initiative, I will post both below:

    1)"Anthropogenic carbon and ocean pH", by Ken Caldeira and Michael Wickett; Nature; Sep 25, 2003; vol 425, pg. 365.

    2) "Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services", by Boris Worm et al; Science, Nov 3, 2006; vol 314; pgs. 787-790.

    There are 'newer' articles and books on the subjects above, but these two may serve in our collective future, if we have one, as true "wake up calls", or as epitaths, if we don't.

    - Manysummits, Calgary -

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  • 10. At 3:29pm on 24 Apr 2009, jo_blogses wrote:

    It is all very well to praise the EU for grasping the nettle (if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor) in EU waters - but they continue to be a force for destruction in other fisheries around the world. They pursue a calculated and cynical policy of promoting the interests of their own fishermen (usually large and wealthy fishing corporations) at the expense of artisanal fishermen in developing countries. This is done either by exchanging 'aid' for fishing agreements in the waters of developing countries, or by undermining both the science and the democratic decision-making of regional fisheries management organisations in high seas fisheries (particularly the lucrative tuna fisheries in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans). We EU citizens should be more aware of the destruction being wrought in our name across the world's oceans, for the benefit of a few, and to keep the fishing lobby quiet.

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  • 11. At 9:32pm on 28 Apr 2009, noblefisher wrote:

    it is not before time that the EU should try to sort out the mess of the cfp, it is a disaster. Our own management is also poor with huge anomelies in effort and quotas allocated to different sectors and boats.
    I am a small commercial fisherman( 5th generation) and want to remain one. What is so frustrating is the continual mantra about the collapse of fish stocks, it is not true. The most endangerd species is the fisherman, when we go to sea we often don't see another fishing vessel. The continous cry of overfishing is out of date. When I attend meetings I hear it all the time and I ask where, show me? The UK and especially England has lost almost all its fleet of all weather ships. Hull,Grimsby and Lowestoft are finished as major ports, the biggest boat in Lowestoft is only 14mtres, the rest and that is possibly only a dozen are day boats and restricted by weather. Fish stocks through out the North Sea are good, with cod, whiting, dover sole and bass doing very well. Skate or thornback ray is also very abundant in the south of the North sea with huge numbers of juvenilles coming through. The reduction in vessels through out the EU must have helped but you do need the right conditions for fish to breed. We hate dumping fish, we try desperatly not to catch cod with many different ways but there are so many that we cannot avoid them. It makes you feel sick when you think of the waste and watch the cod float away dead or dieing. At the present time the strongest part of the English fleet is the under ten metre boats day boats but many are being decomissioned with government money. The fishing for the rest looks so exciting, we need good science to catch up with the stocks. We need the best fishermen on the survey boats, we need people with fishery knowledge to manage the industry not accountants, you the public are being misled and lied to. We the fishermen have no wish to catch the last fish we want a sustainable fishery more than any one. If you want to look seriously at helping the enviroment look at these things what you flush down the toilet, drugs and detergents. Your electricity where it comes from, the cooling water filters kill huge numbers of fish. The dredging of agregates to build new houses and roads, this removes the sea bed. The dredging of port facilities, the new port of Shell Haven (Thames) is to be built in an area of extreme importance to dover sole stock but a judge has said that fish would learn to get out of the way and not be killed by the dredgers. I could go on.

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  • 12. At 09:19am on 29 Apr 2009, gjwkinsale wrote:

    The quota is simply the number of tons that are allowed to be landed for sale. It does not control the amount of fish that is killed, where it is killed or when.
    Fisheries management is basically about species conservation. The target in conservation should be management of both the habitat and the death/survival rates in vulnerable populations. The reason the quota system has failed is that it does not attempt to manage either of those.
    Fisheries policy simply needs to switch to limiting the amount of fish that is killed instead of limiting what is landed. The technology is now available and being installed on fishing vessels that gives real-time monitoring of their position and activity. Regulation must now switch to controlling the number of days fished and where the fishing takes place; plus of course minimum mesh size that allows the escape of immature fish.
    Around the world there is plentiful evidence of the success of no-take zones where all fishing is prohibited - the habitat recovers, fish numbers grow, fish stocks spread outwards from the areas of secure population into the areas being fished.
    It seems that the main reason for not writing a new policy is that the regulators are unable to admit the old one was a faiure.

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  • 13. At 1:32pm on 15 May 2009, jodoyle wrote:

    In the south west of England the Finding Sanctuary project has brought together fishermen, conservationists, recreational sea anglers and a whole host of other sectors to work together to plan a network of Marine Protected Areas. For any management measures to work, you need to get the support and buy in of the people who are using the sea and who are likely to be affected by them. Developing management measures in this inclusive way also means that Marine Protected Areas can be planned in a way that minimises impacts to the users. This means they are more likely to be complied with and ultimately will offer real protection for species and habitats.

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