EU Fisheries Warning on Climate Change

If you want a flavour of the political challenges we face in dealing with global climate change, then take a look at European fisheries. It’s a disaster area! We should heed the warnings it sends.

For year after year political expediency has triumphed over the evident need for drastic action to save a vital resource from almost complete destruction. The indisputable need to curb fishing effort and allow the recovery of fish stocks has been consistently defeated by short term pressures.

The European Commission’s recent green paper on European fisheries has a note of desperation about it.  It’s a discussion paper, designed to prepare the way for an incoming Commission to devise a new EU policy by 2012. Its analysis shows that up to now the common fisheries policy has been a complete failure.

It’s been known for more than 30 years that many fish stocks in Europe’s waters are in danger. That now applies to 88 per cent of species. According to scientists nearly a third of those species have dropped below the “sustainability” level at which the stocks could regenerate even if they were now to be effectively protected.

It’s a disgraceful story. Apparently 93 per cent of the cod fished from the North Sea is caught before it can reproduce.  Large quantities of fish are dumped dead into the sea (“discarded”) because quotas have been exceeded. The Commission reckons that the subsidies which several member states give their fishing industries amount to more than the value of the fish which they catch, as well as maintaining a fishing capability which is too great for the resource. Some of us are paying twice, as consumers and taxpayers.

A common policy operating across many jurisdictions ought to be ideal for fisheries. After all, fish can’t read. They don’t recognise national boundaries. They breed in one area and mature in another. Only common action can deal with a major threat to the resource. Yet this common policy has worked in an entirely negative way as ministers vie with each other to defend their quotas in Brussels and hold back from applying strict controls at home.

I know one shouldn’t underestimate the difficulties faced by national governments. They have to confront their fishing constituencies, provoking serious political backlash, disorder and blockaded ports. But surely after 30 years . . .  Paradoxically, every year’s failure to act foreshortens the future of the industry.

The green paper considers a separate policy for coastal fishing. This would apply within the 12 mile limit and would have a strong regional and social element. A policy of much stricter controls would be applied to the deep sea fleet, together with a substantial cut in capacity. This divide-and-rule approach might take off some political pressure from fishing communities, although it is not easy even now to keep the big boats away from relatively rich coastal fisheries – or to keep smaller vessels from deeper waters.

A specific policy for coastal fisheries might have the added benefit of fostering the creation of conservation areas where fishing is banned altogether. Where such areas have been designated in close consultation with local fishermen, for instance in specific areas off the Scottish and Spanish coasts, there has been a significant increase in stocks of many species – an indication that something can be done.

So where should the authority lie for implementing an effective common fisheries policy? The present system of ministerial bidding in the Council has palpably failed. The Commission could maybe do the job through a management committee system, as it suggests in its green paper, and take detailed decisions itself.  The blame for tighter controls could then be laid on “Brussels”, but the Council will be reluctant to delegate power in this way. Another possibility, also suggested by the Commission, is for the fishing industry itself to take more responsibility.

It is clear that something must be done if European consumers are to continue enjoying fish from European waters and indeed if Europe’s  fishing industry is to have any future at all. This is a major challenge of sustainability, a crisis which requires the same sort of political leadership and the courage to confront special interests which will be essential in developing an effective policy on climate change.