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Fin words, bright waters

Richard Black | 08:48 UK time, Friday, 6 February 2009

Well, blow me down - who'd a thought it?

The very day after a study damns all of the world's big fishing countries for failing to meet goals on responsible fishing that they've signed up to, along comes the European Commission with a proposal aimed at making its shark fisheries, at least, clean and above board.

Hammerhead sharkThe timing (although purely accidental) is almost poetic.

Demonised by Hollywood, vulnerable because of their slow reproduction, and with only their dorsal fins prized as food, sharks are not most people's ideas of special, beautiful creatures whose salvation should dog our conscience daily.

Demonised by environmental groups, vulnerable to abuse because its structure virtually ensures governments will annually scrabble over quotas like dogs over a bone, and with virtually nothing except its scientific advice prized as worthwhile, the Common Fisheries Policy is not most people's idea of an effective way to regulate this most independent-minded of industries.

But sometimes, pairings that look unpromising on paper can surprise you; and though lots of details remain to be filled in, the European Commission's proposals could potentially bring real change.

That change is badly needed, in Europe and elsewhere, is illustrated by a study just published by some academics based at the University of British Columbia and the environmental group WWF. For the shorter version, published in the journal Nature, you'll need a subscription, but WWF's much longer take on it is open to all.

What these specialists have done is to analyse how various countries regulate their fishing industries, and then see how well they match up against the UN's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

Adopted just over 12 years ago, this voluntary agreement says countries should regulate fishing according to the precautionary principle, preserve stocks for future generations, look after habitat, control vessels flying their flags, and so on and so on - not a bad basic recipe book, in fact, for managing fisheries sustainably.

So how do the regimes run by the 53 countries accounting for 96% of the global catch match up against this recipe book?

Not terribly well, is the conclusion; not a single one merits more than a 60% mark, according to the assessors.

The best performers include Norway, the US, Canada and Australia, while North Korea, Myanmar, Angola and Nigeria bring up the rear, each with a score less than 20%.

One of the most interesting findings is that countries' scores correlate very nicely - almost linearly, in fact - with their performance on indicators of governance, such as the World Bank Governance Indicators or the corruption index compiled by Transparency International.

It's not surprising; but it's a salutary reminder that without the good rule of law it's very, very difficult to conserve anything with a monetary value.

So where are the best countries falling down?

SwordfishThe authors conclude there are very few that adequately constrain the size of their fleet - and historically ships in the water means fish coming out of it, no matter what the regulations - and that most, including the EU nations, do too little to reduce bycatch, the accidental (and sometimes "accidental on purpose") snaring of one species while trying to catch another.

You could conclude from this, of course, that the Code of Conduct must be a ridiculously ambitious document, if not a single country is meeting its aims.

To which the answer could be: but all these governments signed up to it, so obviously they thought it worthwhile and achievable.

In the real world, of course, the politics of fishing can obscure the best of aims.

So by far the most tantalising phrase in the commission's shark proposals is that the EU would "establish catch limits for stocks in conformity with the advice provided by ICES (the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) and by the relevant RFMOs (Regional Fisheries Management Organisations)".

If that is interpreted strictly, it would mean countries sticking to advice they routinely ignore now when it comes to other species - as evidenced, for example, by the recent EU-backed decision to keep the Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishery open next year when scientists are virtually on their knees pleading for a suspension.

Let us be completely honest: globally, fisheries have struggled to adapt from a past where supplies could easily meet demand to a present where fishing technology and demand are so big that the commercial extinction of many species is a real possibility.

A number of countries, including diverse bedfellows such as Norway and Namibia, have shown that setting strict rules and enforcing them firmly is, in the long run, best for fishermen as well as for conservation.

But clearly even these top performers are a long way from achieving management that is, in terms they have signed up to, truly "responsible".

Let us see what teeth the European Commission's shark plan retains as it passes through the surgeries of the European parliament and the Council of Ministers; if European governments really do decide to look after some of the ugly ducklings of the ocean, conservationists will have more confidence that they're serious about implementing truly responsible practices across all of their fisheries.

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