Is it too late to save our fish?
Investment Director – The Fleet Street Letter
David Stevenson Jun 12, 2009
The world's fish stocks are so over-exploited that they are in danger of being depleted permanently. Government curbs have just made matters worse. David Stevenson reports.
Why is fishing almost out of rope?
"Eating fish is good for us, but catching it in the way we do devastates the sea," says The Guardian. "Nearly nine-tenths of European stocks are overfished, and around a third are beyond safe biological limits" (ie, the adult population is too depleted to provide replacement stock). Some fish stocks, such as cod, have been reduced to less than 10% of what they were 100 years ago. Almost all cod caught in the North Sea haven't had a chance to breed. The South Pacific and US coastal waters are almost fished out. Yet every year around seven million tonnes of unwanted fish – known as 'bycatch' – are thrown back into the sea.
But aren't quotas in place?
Yes, but they're making matters worse. "Before 1976, commercial fishing in the US was pretty much a free-for-all," says Charles Bryant on Howstuffworks.com.
To curb overfishing, individual quota shares were introduced in the US to limit catch sizes per species and region in a 200-mile zone around the US border. In 1983 the EU brought in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which sets the maximum quantities of fish that can be caught each year in its heavily trawled waters.
But despite periodic rule changes, there's now more overfishing and fish stocks are still falling. And the problem's worst in Europe.
How bad is it?
Of European stocks, 88% are over-fished compared with 25% elsewhere in the world, says The Daily Telegraph's Bruno Waterfield. An EU 'position paper' confesses that: "in many fisheries, we are fishing two or three times what fish stocks can sustain". CFP quotas have limited the number of days fishermen can go to sea. But both monitoring and enforcement have been poor, while trawlers that catch more fish than are allowed, or the wrong species of fish, simply dump the dead excess at sea. Both reduce stocks further.
The EU paper blames fleets and national governments for some of these problems, but admits the urgent need to re-do the CFP. "It's time to design a modern, simple and sustainable system for managing fisheries in the EU," says EU fisheries commissioner Joe Borg.
But aren't fishermen flourishing?
You'd expect so, but no. Under the CFP, heavy subsidies have led to over-large fleets. "Most of Europe's fishing fleets are either running losses or returning low profits," says Borg, due to "chronic overcapacity". CFP quotas have hit Britain particularly hard. UK waters provide the EU with 70% of its fishing but British fishermen are allowed just a 13% quota. The number of UK fishermen has fallen by a third over the last decade. Scottish MEP Struan Stevenson reckons 60% of the UK whitefish fleet has been scrapped and thousands of jobs destroyed.
So a policy sea-change is needed?
The EU now has until 2012 to draw up a new CFP. Critics of EU policy have long demanded the return of fisheries to national control. Stevenson has called for fishing policy to be decentralised, while UKIP leader Nigel Farage says "it's time to scrap the CFP in its entirety and look to successful national fisheries policies like Iceland's and Norway's". In the former, there is an allowable catch rate of 25% of the fishable stock, and a tradable quotas system that allows fishing to increase if stocks grow.
The British government is backing "ambitious reform" to "devolve powers and responsibilities", says the UK fisheries minister, Huw Irranca-Davies. "We also need to enable fishermen to land more fish whilst catching less." As the BBC points out, "if their days at sea weren't limited, they could continually go out, catch only a small amount of their target fish without meeting their quota, but throw back multiple hauls of other species".
What's the long-term answer?
The world's fish will be extinct by 2050 if we raid the oceans at this rate, says a new documentary by Charles Clover, The End Of The Line. The easiest step is to alter consumer behaviour, and there is some progress on this. For example, actress Greta Scacchi (above) is promoting a sustainable fish campaign with Soseki's Restaurant in London, while supermarkets are helping too (see below).
"People have to change their eating habits so they only eat sustainably caught fish," says executive producer Christopher Hird. "They need to put pressure on politicians to ensure the law that already exists is enforced and extended, and they need to join the campaign to create great reserves of the oceans, which will for a period of time be completely free of commercial fishing."
In the long run, says The Guardian, that "means smaller fleets". Europe's fleet may need to halve their 80,000 vessels, although current subsidies could be diverted to encourage fishing crews to leave the industry.
How will this affect our fish shopping?
Last month a Waitrose survey found that more than 75% of us make no attempt to buy sustainable seafood, mainly due to ignorance about shrinking world fish stocks. But help is at hand. "Supermarkets – who sell between 80%-90% of all UK-caught fish – may make unlikely environmental heroes, but they're leading changes in public behaviour, fishery practices and government policy in the fight against overfishing," says Frank Pope in The Times.
Waitrose, M&S, Sainsbury's and the Co-op all now only stock fish from responsibly managed, sustainable fisheries, and avoid endangered species. Sandwich chain Pret a Manger has said it will take tuna off its menus – the bluefin tuna is on the verge of extinction. The consumer response "promises to be strong", says Pope. Let's hope so. If it isn't, for the fishing industry, it "could be the end of the line".
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