Spain's fishy practices cast shadow on seas
Some quotes stay with you forever.
One that's stayed with me came from Rafael Centenera, a general assistant director in Spanish fisheries ministry, when I interviewed him in Vigo, Europe's busiest fishing port, in 2007.
"For sure we are friends of fish," he said. "But still more, we are the friends of fishermen."
The reason these 16 words have stayed with me is that they encapsulate perfectly the approach to managing fisheries that has held sway for many years in most of Europe and indeed much further afield.
What it implies is that a bit of restraint and conservation is fine - so long as it doesn't get in the way of fishermen's profits.
What that stance implies in Spain has been laid out more clearly than ever in a new report from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
According to their analysis, Spanish fishing has been subsidised to the tune of 5.8bn euros ($7.8bn, £5bn) since 2000.
Those subsidies have spanned the scrapping of old boats and the building of new ones, and just about everything in between.
And the number is so high that one in every three fish landed by Spanish boats is paid for in subsidy, ICIJ calculates.
To anyone who's familiar with the issues, the findings won't come as any surprise; but it is nevertheless striking to have the scale of the subsidies laid out so starkly.
Incidentally, on that same trip to Vigo, everyone connected with the industry claimed there were no subsidies, that everything had been ended.
One skipper then undermined the case by telling me how little he had to pay for his diesel.
The website fishsubsidy.org has also documented the scale of public support across the EU.
Among other things, it has produced a list of vessels that were first subsidised in renovation, and then in destruction.
In one Spanish example, money was awarded to the boat Mikel Deuna Primero for modernisation. Just 17 days later, more money was allocated for scrapping it.
The ICIJ report also mentions that fishermen found guilty of fraud or other offences have continued to receive subsidies.
And this theme is taken up in another new report, this time from Greenpeace.
It concludes that a single family of fishing barons has amassed about 16m euros in subsidies, despite a series of arrests and convictions for offences such as smuggling, illegal shark-finning and falsifying records.
Maria Damanaki, Europe's fisheries commissioner who's leading moves to reform the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), says the accusations are being investigated.
Spain isn't the only country that supports its fishing industry with subsidies that in theory do not exist.
Ernesto Penas Lado, director of policy and enforcement at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, tells the ICIJ: "Spain has earned its bad reputation; the problem is others don't have the reputation, and deserve it just as much."
But if European fisheries are to be put on a sustainable footing, Spain is the key nation.
That's partly because it operates by far the bloc's largest fleet, and partly because it traditionally leads the process of political lobbying designed to ensure that authorities prioritise fishermen (at least, the big industrial companies that organise the lobbying) above fish in their hierarchy of friendship.
But there's a huge disconnect here; because ultimately, keeping fishing at unsustainable levels is anything but friendly to fishermen.
As the World Bank made clear a few years ago in its Sunken Billions report, the huge overcapacity of the world's fleets actually make the industry much less profitable, with about $50bn being poured into the sea every year.
Cutting the overcapacity and allowing stocks to recover will in the end make for a financially healthier proposition.
That's a reality that the authorities in Spain (and other countries) have routinely ignored.
The situation has barely changed in years, with changes wrought in long-term management plans for species such as cod just a drop in the ocean.
CFP reform - due to be completed in 2013 - is the biggest opportunity to put things right that there has been in years, and the biggest there is likely to be for many more.
Yet pressure for reform from the "usual suspects" such as Greenpeace frankly appears unlikely to bring about major change, because the pressure has been there for years and has pushed governments only a small distance.
So what might make a difference?
One window of opportunity could be the financial mess in which Spain finds itself - not on the scale of Greece, but mentioned whenever the "who's next after Greece?" question gets asked. Some of its economic indicators are around the European average, but 20% unemployment is anything but - the highest in the bloc, in fact.
If research is showing that cutting fishing capacity would increase revenues, why not demand Spain trims its industrial fleet as a condition for economic aid? If that brings just one of the World Bank's sunken billions into Spanish ports every year, that's one less billion the rest of the eurozone would have to find.
The other window is surely provided by that unemployment figure.
An industry that favours big industrialised fleets with a powerful lobby over small-scale, artisanal operations is inherently less sustainable from an ecological point of view, because fishermen who do not have the capacity to move somewhere else when stocks are depleted are more likely to look after their fishing grounds.
It's also much worse socially. Globally, artisanal fishing snares less than half the world's total catch, yet provides 90% of the jobs.
So a switch from large-scale industrialised fleets to small-scale localised effort would create employment, as well as increasing the chances of creating a more sustainable industry - which in turn means more profits down the line.
Sounds like a way to be a better friend to both fish and fishermen; but don't hold your breath.
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