Environment, Europe, Headlines

EUROPE: Time for Christmas, and to Fight over Fish

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Dec 19 2008 (IPS) - European Union governments have a strange way of preparing for Christmas: they squabble about fish.

Each December, marine ministers gather in Brussels to haggle over how much fish can be scooped up from the seas and oceans over the following 12 months. Scientific advance about the perilous state of many varieties is routinely ignored in a bid to placate lobbyists who warn of dire consequences for coastal communities if their catch levels are cut.

The familiar pattern was followed again this year.

In May, the European Commission, the EU's executive, warned that 88 percent of fish stocks in the Union's waters are overexploited, compared with an average of 25 percent in the world as a whole. Although the EU's common fisheries policy has been reformed with a view to protecting vulnerable stocks, no overall improvement has occurred in the EU's waters in the past five years. "The situation of Europe's fish stocks continues to be alarming," Joe Borg, the fisheries commissioner, said at the time.

Among the measures advocated by Borg was a temporary cessation of fishing for cod, haddock and whiting in the waters off western Scotland.

But following intense lobbying by British politicians, worried that a ban on trawling would also hurt fishing for commercially lucrative species like prawns and monkfish, closure was avoided in an accord endorsed by EU governments Dec. 19. As a result, whitefish may still be caught, albeit at reduced levels to previous years.

Despite backing down on his plans, Borg proclaimed himself satisfied with the outcome of the meeting. The agreement, he said, ensured "full respect of recovery plans" for overexploited stocks, adding: "We will continue to work for sustainable fishing in our own waters. Today's decision is a further step along this road."

Ecological activists were not as upbeat.

Data from the European Commission indicates that the total allowable catch levels set by EU governments are generally about 48 percent higher than those recommended by scientists. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said it is perturbed that this trend appears to be continuing with some stocks. For example, a 15 percent increase in the quota for Southern hake has been set, whereas scientists advised that the catch level should be set at zero.

"Every year, the fisheries quotas circus is repeating the same show," said WWF marine spokesman Aaron McLoughlin. "We need to change this if we want to preserve valuable fish stocks and marine life."

He protested that quotas do not take into account the full amount of fish actually taken from the sea. Discards – fish which are thrown back into the sea because they are undersized or not prized commercially – are not included.

During 2007, fishermen working in the North Sea landed 24,000 tonnes of cod but discarded about 23,000 tonnes. McLoughlin argued that the question of discards needs to be addressed as part of further reforms to the common fisheries policy.

"Europe's fisheries ministers and the EU Commission have presided over a systematic failure in fisheries management," he said. "If they want to be serious about ensuring a prosperous and sustainable fisheries for Europe, they should get around to dealing with the large amount of discards."

To compensate for the depletion of stocks in its own waters, the EU has become the biggest importer of fish in the world. At over 4 million tonnes last year, the amount imported in the Union was equivalent to 77 percent of the total catch of the European fleet.

Oceana, another conservation group, argued the EU's ability to import fish in such vast quantities has help distract attention for the sorry state of its own stocks. "It's a vicious circle that makes no sense at all," said Ricardo Aguilar, the group's director of research. "In order to increase profitability for the sector, irresponsible fishing quotas are granted that only make the situation worse for already overexploited stocks. This is despite the fact that there is barely any fish left."

Greenpeace campaigner Saskia Richartz said that EU governments are "legitimising overfishing against all scientific advice.

"Reducing fishing quotas is not about penalising fishermen," she added. "It is a necessary measure to ensure that there will be fish left in the sea. This is the only way to recover the resource and guarantee future jobs in fishing."

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