When I was 16, back in the sixties, I never dreamed that an inexpensive can of tuna would become not only unbelievably pricey, but almost unobtainable. Yet that scenario now looks to be right around the corner, as the earth goes through changes inevitably associated with climate change, overpopulation, generally poor management of resources, and a mistaken impression that there will always be enough.
But a little good news is on the horizon, at least where fish are concerned. In the wake of a failing global fishing industry, which has seen everything from bluefin tuna to extraordinary red snapper depleted, and even ordinary tuna being taken off the menu, the European Union is working to reform the present system of fishing quotas.
Established in the 1960s as the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), this mandate requires fishermen to throw back as much as two-thirds of their catch, or 1 million tonnes in the North Sea alone, when what comes up in the net is outside the quota (i.e., a dolphin or whale), or the fishing trawler is over quota.
For example, if a fishing trawler nets a huge quantity of perfectly good cod, but doesn’t have a license for that fish (or has already met its quota for cod; or if the cod contains a dolphin or shark, for example), it must throw back the entire catch.
This leads to extinction among some of the more fragile species, and destroys the long-term sustainability of even common varieties of fish like haddock and shad.
Richard Benyon, member of Parliament for Newbury and the UK fisheries minister, has suggested three alternatives to the current quota system: a "catch" quota, whereby fishermen land all of their catch, monitored by CCTV cameras, but may have the amount of time they can spend at sea curtailed; changes to fishing tackle and techniques to reduce discards; and promoting markets, both within the EU and for export overseas, for fish that are currently little eaten, such as dab and pouting. Already a move to put jellyfish in that category is aimed at preserving the balance among depleted ocean fish.
Many UK food processors and retailers agree with the mandate, saying the current common fisheries policy is not working. At least 650,000 residents of the UK agree and have signed a petition simply called Hugh’s Fish Fight, organized by food writer and critic Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Several Scandinavian countries also agree, and are working with the EU to change current fisheries policy, including quotas. Certainly Greenpeace is solidly onboard with the proposed changes.
Some countries with extensive fishing industries that contribute hugely to their GDP (gross domestic product) are expected to oppose the measures, admits EU fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki, who has described the current system as a “nightmare of discards.” The dissent is no surprise, as EU member states with large fishing industries jockey for position to try to ensure their fleets enjoy the best deal on quotas. But single and family fisherman are also putting up a ruckus, because a new system is as likely to favor “megafishing” as the old one did.
These are largely fishermen who live in coastal fishing communities from Prestwick in Scotland to Fishguard in Wales. They have a heritage as fishermen; their great-grandfathers were fishers, and their sons will grow up to be, assuming there are any fish left to catch. They live in small settlements all along the prolific North Atlantic, where the ocean warms via the Gulf Stream, and they worry that they will be cut out of the industry under the new fisheries rules.
They are perhaps right to do so. Such rules have traditionally favored big trawlers over smaller fishing boats, even though – as Deadliest Catch star Corey Arnold notes – the small fisherman has a much better chance of meeting the sustainable fishing agenda and its quotas, and providing food while avoiding waste.
Arnold, who was recently hired by the prestigious Pew Environment Group to analyze the current state of the fishing industry in Europe, says it is almost impossible for small fishing venues like father and son, or three-man teams, to survive.
This is partly because fishing vessels and their crews see the quotas they have been allocated since the 1960s as “heritable”. This has led to a situation where such quotas are treated as a commodity, much like an oil lease, and – as Tom Appleby of the University of West England notes – may result in the EU government inadvertently privatizing the fishing industry.
And, where smaller fishing operations can quickly adapt to quota requirements, including for example creating a market for “trash” fish (dab or pouting) locally, or even adapting one or two nets to exclude the undesirables, larger fishing operations can’t, or don’t.
Benyon has come up with several proposals. One involves doing away with the catch quota, instead limiting a trawler’s time at sea. Another involves revamping fishing equipment and techniques to reduce or eliminate discards. A final one involves creating markets for trash fish – which may be essential given the rapid depletion of those species humans have been eating into extinction for the past 200 years.
Other solutions include: catch quotas, which would allow fisherman to take on board all the fish they catch, though they would be monitored by camera to insure compliance; and marine protection areas, which would provide protected enclaves for at-risk species to recoup their losses.
EU ministers hope to have the new fisheries policies in place by January of 2013.
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