Thursday, March 12, 2009

Why isn’t fishery management working?

The Darwinist Thomas Huxley was wrong. His assertion during the Royal Commission’s enquiry into trawling in 1883 that the great sea fisheries were inexhaustible seems a facile statement in the twenty-first century. The European Commission have declared that some important fish stocks are on the verge of collapse; this has already happened in other parts of the globe, with the devastation of the anchoveta fishery off Peru in the 1970s and the collapse of cod stocks in eastern Canada in the early 1990s, the latter resulting in 40,000 fishermen losing their livelihoods. Fishery management faces a crisis. Models by Villy Christenson from the University of British Columbia suggest that today’s stocks are just one-tenth of what they were in 1900 and two-thirds of this decline has happened since the 1950s. The magazine Science has termed it “fishing down the marine food web” by Pauly et al 1998; depletion of sea life through the trophic levels, or as the Daily Telegraph (16 December 2008) describes it “putting jellyfish on the menu”.

What is the real truth and what can be done? The answers are complex and need to be teased out from the knot of bureaucracy, politics and misleading scientific data.

According to Callum Roberts, professor of Marine Conservation at York University, the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) itself is to blame; a policy that has been criticised by conservationists and fishermen alike since its hasty inception in 1983, a strategy drawn-up by the six original members of the European Union – none of which were major fishing nations at the time. Today scientists under the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES) advise the Directorate of Fisheries in Brussels of sustainable quotas for the following year and the Council of Fishery ministers then haggle over total allowable catches (TACs). Cynics suggest that council ministers meet just before Christmas because there is no other way to reach an agreement without the last flight home looming before the holidays! The wrangling and horse-trading has nothing to do with conserving stocks; more about gaining the best deal possible for one’s own fishing industry. Has there ever been a fisheries minister who has courted unpopularity with their own fishing community, the people they represent? How would this look to the wider electorate? More importantly, what would the poles say? Politicians only see short-term goals; long-term planning is someone else’s problem. The answer may be to take the decision-making responsibility out of the hands of politicians. One parallel is the economic mechanism for setting bank interest rates, whereby decisions are made by a group of financial experts, with the responsibility relieved from those who have a vested interest – the politicians. In a similar manner it could be argued that marine scientists should be ultimately responsible for marine resource management.

Moreover, the scientific data passed to the Council of Fishery ministers is used only as a baseline, with fishing quotas inflated twenty-five to thirty-five percent more than the figures recommended by the fishery scientists. One wonders how the scientists feel about this. The Europa document (EC 2009) detailing the 2002 reform of the CFP suggests that it is important for scientists to share their expertise with other stakeholders. In other words their input to the process is vital, yet this is a process that allows their findings to be indiscriminately undermined. One can sympathise with them; they must feel really exasperated and undervalued.

This leads onto the next question - can the science be trusted? The models which underpin fisheries management fail to understand the importance of a healthy ecosystem but instead concentrate solely on pelagic and demersal fisheries. In other words, the science fails to look at the bigger picture, the interaction between species and communities. In addition, and according to Tim Oliver, editor of Fishing News, a weekly newspaper covering all aspects of commercial fishing, fish stock extrapolation should be “a theoretically precise science, which is in fact anything but precise”.

This is not a criticism of the scientists who often have to work within restrictive practices and with finite resources; more about the complex and rigid regulations which are fundamentally flawed. Nevertheless, the psychology of fishermen also has a role to play. Fishermen go through danger, discomfort and depravation to catch fish and some bend or blatantly ignore regulations which they see as being made by bureaucrats who do not know the difference between a sardine and a sandeel. An analogy might be car drivers on a motorway. Who drives at 60 mph when one can generally get away with doing 75 or 80? It is human nature to push the limits. In essence, fishing quotas create waste by forcing fishermen to dump fish for which they do not have a quota, but this is loathed by most who land fish illegally. Similarly, “high-grading” is the practice of filling the hold with the best fish and discarding the rest when fish are plentiful. Critically, all this data is not available to scientists and it is estimated that over the last forty years, although 130,000 tonnes of North Sea haddock has been landed, a further 87,000 tonnes was discarded. Perhaps the agreement by the Council of Fishery ministers last December to avoid discards may improve things, but this is tinkering at the edges of a systemically flawed system. The answer may be to let the fishermen keep what they catch and scrap quotas. Primary management can then be controlled through reducing the amount of fishing effort. This of course is an anathema to the industry and the “D” word (decommissioning) is rarely aired by fisheries ministers who fear for their majorities.

Enforcement also has a role to play in administering an effective fishery management policy and British fishermen suspect that it is not a level playing field. Some member states are unwilling or unable to enforce the regulations on their own fishermen. Even allowing for parochial prejudices of the British trawler skipper, the enthusiasm to implement statutory EU controls especially by France and Spain is poor. Moreover, prosecutions are minimal and the fines imposed for illegal fishing are paltry (see This leads back to the science – without accurate, declared catch statistics the scientific forecasting is defective.

It will therefore require a paradigm shift in philosophy and a reinvention of policy if humankind is to prevent wholesale devastation of the marine resource.

1 comment:

  1. I can give you the name of a former Irish fisheries minister who has courted unpopularity with his own fishing community: Noel Dempsey T.D., former Minister for Communications, Marine & Natural Resources in Ireland. On 1 November 2006, the Irish government announced a moratorium on at-sea drift-net fishing for wild Atlantic salmon. The ban came into effect at the start of the salmon fishing season in 2007 and is still in place.

    Some of the issues that you raised in your post are discussed in the following article in the context of the Irish drift-net fishing ban: Sustainable management of wild Irish Atlantic salmon: Keys found through the looking-glass. Marine Policy 32 (2008) 1072-1079