Voting to end Over Fishing – A Fruitless Exercise Unless the Brief is Widened
On the sixth of February 2013 members of the European Parliament voted by 502 votes to 137 with 27 abstentions to end over fishing at sea. While the action, precipitated by people power fired up by celebrity foodie Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Fish Fight campaign, and resultant outcome is significant in terms of the possible regeneration of fish stocks within EU territorial waters and beyond, the substantive issue, whether the industry and its political wing will react favourably is still uncertain, so don’t go cracking open the champagne just yet.
Why the reticence? Ever since sea fishing evolved from what was a subsistence practice into a commercial operation, those that govern have consistently placed socio – economic considerations ahead of environmental precedence. A historical record detailing a complaint to ban the use of a rudimentary bottom trawl because it destroyed habitat, put before King Edward III of England in 1376, describes an early example of a beam trawl. The petition explains both construct and methodology of the gear, and surprisingly displays great understanding of the environmental damage wreaked by the technology and its future consequences. The Kings response was to set up a commission which determined that the fishing engine should only be used in deep water and not in estuaries and shallow coastal bays, no law was ever passed to enact this decision.
Tracing a path from the late 14th century to the present day, the perceived infinite abundance of our seas and oceans and their potential both as a source of protein to feed burgeoning populations, and in the case of Great Britain a provider of ready trained personnel, in the guise of fishermen, for her Navy, was seized upon by the political establishment. Investment in sea fisheries was seen by Government as good business, especially after the invention of steam and the creation and rapid expansion of railways during the 18th century.
These technological advances allied to the invention of on board storage wells and use of ice enabled fishing vessels to become more efficient, both in terms of catching and product shelf life, with the subsequent hauls being transported quickly to ever enlarging urban areas so generating cheap food for the masses. By products such as experienced sailors, on shore jobs in boat building, further processing, transport, and fish wholesaling, investment opportunities, wealth creation, and national prestige sealed the deal in the corridors of power. Any suggestion of environmental damage or a decline in fish stocks, in principal always trumped at parliament level or conveniently ignored.
In 1863, on the back of rapid expansion to what could now be termed a fishing industry, the British Government, under pressure from inshore line and net fishers appointed a commission to inquire into complaints against trawling and other grievances. One of three and a key member of this commission was zoologist Thomas Henry Huxley, well known at the time for his robust defence of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. After visiting 86 fishing communities and interviewing hundreds of witnesses the commission members conclusion advised that; all acts of parliament which profess to regulate, or restrict, the modes of fishing in the open sea be repealed; and that unrestricted fishing be permitted hereafter.
In reaching their verdict Huxley et al dismissed the experience of fishermen on the basis that they are; disposed to depreciate the present in comparison with the past, that signs of declining fish stocks in the absence of catch statistics, of which none existed at that time, were just natural fluctuations, and most pointedly that trawl caught fish represented the bulk of, and fetched a lesser price at market, than line caught fish, so making the product more accessible to the poor, ergo, restricting trawling would effect seriously the supply of food to the wider population.
Viewed from a distance of 150 years, aspects of this report to include experiential evidence of habitat destruction and the killing of juvenile fish are still relevant in 2013. Surprising also, is how many of the same arguments for carrying on the status quo put forward back then are still repeated by today’s fishing industry, even in the face of serious marine environmental decline of both fish stocks and habitat. This apparent desire at fisheries managerial level to commit industrial hari kiri is reason enough for being circumspect, even after last weeks positive European parliament vote in favour of ending over fishing.
Since 1863 commercial sea fishing has morphed and grown from essentially a coastal occupation conducted from predominantly sailing and rowing boats to large vessels plying their trade far from land. By the early 20th century fisheries management principals based on science were being developed and implemented, maximum sustainable yield, referred to as MSY, the maximum use that a renewable resource can sustain without impairing its renewability through natural growth or replenishment, became a cornerstone. Based on a mathematical equation relating to a biomass and how it perpetuates itself, on paper it works, in reality less so due to natural variables such as climate change and fluctuating fecundity of species.
A famous paper, “An Epitaph for the Concept of MSY” published in 1977 by marine scientist P.A. Larkin details clearly, albeit in a tongue in cheek way, the well proven inadequacies of the measure, yet today, maximum sustainable yield has been resurrected again to become the central building block, alongside discards, of future sustainable fisheries policy as laid out in the report on EU fisheries reform presented by MEP Ulrike Rodust. Celebrated as a positive in the post vote euphoria, the inclusion and future significance of MSY in CFP reform is a real concern.
Equally worrying is how the official European Parliament press release is clearly weighted towards economics as against environment, “fish stocks should recover by 2020, enabling us to take 15 million tonnes more fish, and create 37,000 new jobs”. No consideration appears to have been given regarding wider stakeholder involvement in future decision making to include recreational and tourism interests. Provision of food is vitally important and rightly at the forefront of reform, however given the growth and future importance of service industries in modern society, positive change in the CFP will not be fully achieved without a broader input.
Given that the next stage in the process is for parliament to start negotiations with the Council and the Commission on the reform plans, with the usual industry and political suspects donning their jerseys, it is still not too late to widen the brief. With the abyss of world fisheries extinction potentially 30 years away, it’s hard not to feel that the mind set of Thomas Henry Huxley still dominates when it comes to protecting, managing, and developing our fisheries. There’s still time to change the status quo, let’s not waste a golden opportunity……..
Ashley Hayden © February 2013
See also: Marine Protection Areas.