Friday, 15 July 2011

European fisheries reform: harsh realities

Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is one of those subjects you mention at your peril.

Should you dare to raise the subject in almost any forum, eyes will roll. Minds will cloud. Fingers will drumb on tables. It's just so boring for most people.

But it's critical for Europe's fish stocks. It's moving towards the top of the European political agenda. And the European Commission has just announced a whole new approach. We Brits, who've been complaining about the CFP for years, are now playing a key role in reshaping a mad, mad system that even saw fishermen throwing thousands and thousands of tons of perfectly good fish overboard before they could bring it to shore. It's known as discard. I'd call it, well, immoral. Like the Common Agricultural Policy. But don't get me started on that one.

Hats off to Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall (above) and his extremely popular and successful campaign to end discard for ever. Ending discard is now one of the European Commission's highest priorities in this policy area, and not before time. The whole concept of fisheries control is going to move from limiting each boat's catch to limiting catches for whole areas. So if you dredge up loads of cod when you were looking for mackerel, you can 'sell' this to another wholesaler or boat and land it for cash. While still observing a more rational overall target for the area of the sea that you and other EU nationals are fishing. Hopefully this will encourage technological innovation, for instance on more selective nets and efficient area targeting. The UK's already been conducting its own trials along exactly those lines.

But that's only a start. For the truth is that we even if we move to landing all the fish that's caught, and adopt trading agreements to 'buy' and 'sell' quotas, we've just been hauling too much of the wrong types of fish out of the sea for far too long. We just need to reduce the actual total of big demersal, deep-sea fish (such as cod) that we catch and eat. It's that simple. And we've not got there yet. As I've argued until I'm blue in the face, EU scientists have been setting realistic targets for years, only to be ignored by the self-interested politicians on the Council of Ministers. Every new negotiation has been marked by a macabre dance, in which politicians compete to show 'their' populaces (and marginal seaside electorates) that 'they' are being tough in resisting encroachments on 'their' fish. And then just letting maritime industries strip another generation of endangered species out of the ocean. Let's hope that doesn't happen this time. There's plenty of time for another grubby stitch-up to emerge, and then victories on overall quotas and discharges will seen bitterly pyrrhic indeed.

Only widespread fleet scrappages - perhaps on the scale of ten to twenty per cent - can achieve this. That'll really hurt in the highlands of Scotland and in Devon and Cornwall, but otherwise we'll be in the position of the Canadian Grand Banks - no fish, no industry - within a couple of decades.

We can and must declare an end to the era of overfishing. And the post-war era of cheap, meaty, white fish. That's the harsh reality.

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