Almost everyone will be familiar with the phrase sometimes offered as a consolation to someone who has failed to make a relationship work: ‘never mind, there are plenty more fish in the sea’. Only a maritime nation could come up with such a comparison; the idea of the fecundity of our seas is so ingrained in the national psyche that our Victorian forebears declined to put in place any fisheries management measures because they believed that our fisheries were, to all intents and purposes, inexhaustible.
We now know that such faith was badly misplaced. The figures from just one species –cod – tell the tale. It seems likely that, under pressure from fishing, stocks are now one tenth of what they once were. Much of that loss has been recent. The North Sea catch dropped from 287,000 tons in 1981 to 86,000 tons in 1991. The story for most fish is similar. Around 70% of the fish stocks in European waters are at present being overfished.
Fisheries management has been back on the agenda for some time and the main tool for that management is the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Three aspects of the CFP above all others signal its failure. Best known of these is the now discredited practice of throwing back perfectly edible fish either because they were not the target species or because the boat catching them was over its quota. The intention behind the practice is good management, but it could only work if fish were returned alive and undamaged to the sea. Mostly they are dead; those that are alive have a low chance of survival.
Equally damaging but less well known is the process by which quota is set. The advice of fisheries scientists has, in the past, not been accepted as a given, but as a baseline from which the fisheries ministers of Europe can negotiate upwards, often declaring their increased share of an increased quota to be a triumph, when in truth it has been a disaster. Lastly, it is alarming that, having exploited our fisheries for so long, there should be so many – around 60% – for which we still do not have good scientific data. Throw in the fact that we still exploit many species without imposing a limit and you have the recipe for the disaster which has ensued. The current CFP runs until 2013 and it is already being reviewed. This constitutes what could well be a last opportunity to get it right.
Who could argue with a desire to move from overfishing to sustainable management of our fish stocks, working on the principle of ‘maximum sustainable yield’? The proposals recently put forward by EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki aim to do just that. They argue that ‘if stocks were exploited at maximum sustainable yield this would increase stock size by 70%. Overall catches would increase by 17%, profit margins could be multiplied by a factor of three times, return on investment would be six times higher, and the gross value added for the catching industry would rise by almost 90%’. One might (perhaps churlishly) point out that, when stocks have declined by 90%, aiming to less than double the remaining 10% is a modest target. Nevertheless, it would mean a lot more fish in the sea and a much more productive, sustainable and long term fishing industry. Everyone should be satisfied.
Getting agreement that the fishing of the future should be neither wasteful nor damaging and must maximise sustainable harvests is relatively easy, but achieving these deceptively simple goals will require a profound change in the way we manage and exploit our fisheries. The journey to this promised land has to go via a pretty bumpy road. All fish caught must be landed, even when they are less valuable in the market place, until we can find more selective ways of targeting individual species.
The overall catch must fall for a while until stocks can recover. Species for which no sound data exists will have to be exploited well within likely limits using the ‘precautionary principle’. Species for which there are currently no quotas ought to be embraced by the system, though that is not currently part of the proposals being put forward. Most challenging of all is the need to fish in ways which do not have negative impacts on other species (such as dolphins and diving seabirds) and on the range of different habitats where the fish we eat are born, live and grow before we catch them. And finally, we will have to stop pursuing our prey wherever they are found. There must be parts of our seas where all marine life can find sanctuary – which is the purpose of the network of Marine Protected Areas proposed in the Marine Act and currently being evolved.
It is a harsh but inescapable fact that this will impact on a generation of fishermen. Many of them recognise the dilemma, understanding the need for long term sustainability while at the same time worrying about the likely impact on their own livelihoods of achieving it. Society as a whole must respond to this. The change is for the good of the whole; we cannot expect one small part to bear all the cost. If we wish to reduce fishing effort and the size of our fishing fleet, then investing public money in buying out capacity has to be part of the strategy.
The plans outlined by Maria Damanaki are largely sound and to be applauded – but they are only plans. They have yet to be subjected to the pressures of human interest, from individual member States and from those on whom they will impact. Only broad public support of the kind so skilfully whipped up by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall will protect the plans. Everyone who cares about the future of our fisheries and our marine environment must make their voices heard. If we fail, a once in a lifetime opportunity will be lost and future generations will be left the poorer.