One Fish, Two Fish: Europe Takes Another Stab at Saving Dwindling Stocks

Europe enjoys a “green” reputation in energy, transportation, recycling and more. But when it comes to managing its fisheries? Not so much.

The European Commission says 75 percent of Europe’s stocks are overfished, and despite a fishing fleet that’s double the size it was 20 years ago, catches are dramatically down. That’s because there are more boats chasing fewer fish. This has also led to hundreds of millions of euros being spent in subsidies to keep politically-important fishing fleets afloat.

Meanwhile, current rules have crews tossing more than a million tons of dead fish overboard each year to avoid exceeding catch limits. Videos like this have helped inflame public sentiment at the flagrant waste of a depleted resource. More than half a million people have signed a petition by British TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to stop the practice.

EU fisheries chief Maria Damanaki just anounced what her office called a “radical” revamping of Europe’s nearly 30-year-old Common Fisheries Policy, that she said would “get our fish stocks into a healthy state to preserve them for present and future generations.” She said she intended to meet Europe’s international commitments to make all fisheries sustainable by 2015.

That’s a pretty tall order. How’s that supposed to happen? Some highlights:

  • The dumping of excess catch — called “discarding” — will be phased out, at least for the most-commercial stocks.
  • The Precautionary approach — that no action will be taken unless it can be shown to not damage the environment — will be a guiding principle.
  • Ecosystem and science-based management will be adopted.
  • A switch from overall national quotas to a system of transferable catch shares that can be traded in response to local conditions.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because very similar proposals have been promised in the US, specifically for west coast ground fisheries (I reported on this here …).

How’s that going? Glen Spain, with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations in Eugene, Oregon, says some of these approaches have worked out better than others.

So far,” he says, “catch shares … and other transferable fishing quota systems have a very mixed record.  Unless very carefully controlled, they result in permanent privatization of what should always remain a public resource, allowing monopolization and forcing most of the smaller quota holders out of the system.”

If ownership isn’t restricted to working boats and commercial fishermen, Spain says, large financial institutions and investors buy up the quotas . He says that leads to speculation and a bottom-line mentality that’s bad for both fishing communities and fish stocks. He says that’s what’s happened in the Alaska crab fishery that’s had a catch-share system for several years.

Spain’s group is one of several that’s sued the federal government over the recent change to transferable fishing quotas for West Coast ground fish. He says using such quotas as a conservation tool is “a fundamental mistake.”

In fact,” he says, “it is nothing more than an economic reallocation tool, usually from multiple smaller boat owners to the bigger boats and companies (often multi-national corporations) with more capital.”

What matters for sustainability of any fishery, Spain says, is how many fish are taken in each year.

It is just as possible to crash (a catch share) fishery as any other, if the total catch is politically manipulated to be far above biological sustainability. … The laws of biology are very unforgiving …”

Spain notes that the overriding of science by politics has been a hallmark of EU allocation policies in the past. The U.S. has also seen its share of fishery disasters caused by manipulating or ignoring science when powerful economic and political forces were at play.

The proposal now goes to be hashed out between the European parliament and the governments of the EU member states, a process that’s expected to take 18 months or more.

And it’s there that influential constituencies in all those countries will be doing their best to pull all the political levers they can to get a final result that will upset their particular apple cart as little as possible.

If the history of these decision-making processes is any indication, European fish could be in for a rough time ….


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