Democracy Inc. - bored of the USA

The problem with world fisheries is nobody sticks up for the fish

April 16, 2009

The problem with world fisheries is nobody sticks up for the fish.” Charles Clover, The End of the Line.

While Somali pirates are taking hostages, killing and getting killed by the French navy, French trawlermen are blockading Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk. The Somalis claim they have taken to robbery and kidnapping because their traditional fishing livelihoods have been abstracted by factory ships. The French trawlermen are protesting more or less the same thing, except that their fishing methods are somewhat more automated and their temporary victims are a bunch of tourists, truck drivers and ferry operators. I have no sympathy for either group. The French will exact concessions from their government – so far Eur 4 million has been offered in aid – and maybe the EU. The Somalis will probably end up dead. In either case the root cause will remain. If the matelots were protesting about the ghastly English in general or any number of legitimate gripes other than EU fish quotas, they’d have the full power of Thus behind their routine trashing of the UK Easter half-term holiday. But if they win this one, everyone loses. The restrictions to which they object are insufficient, impossible to enforce and arguably contribute more to the problem than to the solution. We need to pay them to stay in port and find them something sensible and dignified to do while they don’t go to sea. Ditto for the Somalis, but that’s another story.

Charles Clover presents a compelling and authoritative account of the overfishing of the world’s oceans, to which I can’t add much other than to urge you to look out for the documentary film, released in June. Scientists agree that while pollution and climate change, environment and food stocks all affect breeding patterns and populations, factory ships, super trawlers and the collateral damage they cause with their catch-all multi-kilometre nets have damaged fish stocks beyond the tipping point. While fishermen themselves are a breed in decline, it is insane to allow them to exercise their right to work by destroying what remains of the planet’s fish populations.

The current French protest (now halted) is targeted against the 2008 EU quotas, which are are harmful and wasteful, but not because they are too stringent. They encourage fishermen throw back corpses of endangered fish they have caught by accident if it takes them over their quota of a specific species. While increasing net holes has theoretically helped immature fish to escape, trawling is at best an inexact science and the big ships create havoc as they scrape the seas in search of dwindling stocks in a compressed timeframe. Even if EU fleets comply with quotas, non-EU trawlers account for over 28% of the tonnage in European territorial waters. Quotas may be seen as a ploy to avoid the inevitable recognition that without a total moratorium on factory fishing, white fish in particular face extinction in the North Atlantic and North Sea within a maximum of 30 years, perhaps much earlier. Because this is politically unpalatable we will allow the next generation to take the consequences of our idiocy.

The French government offer of EUR 4 million aid to the trawlermen won’t even pay the legal fees of the proposed litigation from the ferry owners whose businesses have been affected by the blockade. According to the European Environmental Agency, France accounts for around 8% of the tonnage of the EU fishing fleet, similar to Britain and Italy, with combined populations of over 180 million. The Netherlands accounts for 6%. At 19%, Spain is the biggest EU member state fleet. Iceland (7%) and Norway (15%) are not EU members and have a combined population of less than 6 million. Both are grudging signatories to EU memoranda. 28% of the fishing fleet is described as ‘other.’

EU figures show that the while numbers of ships fell by 10%, total tonnage, engine power and overall numbers of vessels in the combined fishing fleets of member states has remained roughly constant since 1997. Factory ships, which do the most damage, have come to the fore. It is a classic example of EU funhouse economics. Giving the same number of people the right to catch 30% less fish from a naturally-declining supply is bound to cause price inflation and bring misery to all but the most ruthless and best-equipped operators, who cause the most environmental damage. A fishy version of the EU Common Agricultural Policy ’set aside’ scheme (itself flawed) should be enacted, paying trawlermen to lay up for a significant period while stocks recover. Punitive taxes, based on tonnage, could be applied to the big ships. Klondikers from Asia, Japan, Russia and, it has to be said, Spain, should be made very unwelcome indeed in EU territorial waters and fish markets should be better monitored for smuggled catches.

I have recently eaten gambas in a pictureseque waterfront café in a remote corner of southern Spain, to be informed that they were caught and shipped from Northern Scotland – the local stocks were exhausted long ago. I have heard of Klondike trawlers from the Vladivostok fleet, forced to fish half a world away from home, unloading illegal catches of North Atlantic cod at Lowestoft, Yarmouth and Ipswich, where they fetch bullion-robbery prices. Populations of Atlantic herring have declined by almost 95% over the past two decades. Atlantic salmon smoult numbers have fallen by 70% over half that period. I’m no Cousteau – more of a Clouseau if the truth were told – but I know a red herring when it’s under my nose. EU fishing quotas are dangerous, unworkable and shift the balance in favour of the very factory ships which have destroyed the seas and the livelihoods of ‘traditional’ fishermen.