Environment, Europe, Headlines

Q&A: ‘Children Mustn’t See Fish Only in Pictures’

David Cronin interviews MARIA DAMANAKI, European Commissioner for Fisheries

BRUSSELS, Sep 27 2010 (IPS) - A casual visit to any of Europe’s major supermarkets could leave a shopper with the impression that there is a boundless supply of fish in the continent’s waters. The true picture is far less rosy. With about 88 percent of the European Union’s fish stocks overexploited, EU vessels are travelling increasingly longer distances before bringing home their catches.

Maria Damanaki Credit: European Commission

Maria Damanaki Credit: European Commission

Maria Damanaki, the EU’s fisheries commissioner, will next year present proposals for reforming the Union’s four-decades-old common fisheries policy (CFP). She is promising that Europe’s fishermen will be obliged to respect higher standards of environmental protection when operating in the EU’s own seas and that fisheries agreements signed between the EU and Africa will pay greater attention to the needs of the world’s poor.

Q: How should fish be managed: as an economic resource or as an environmental question? A: I was born on an island — Crete. There it was very natural to have fish and eat fish. When I came here (to Brussels) I realised people want to eat more and more fish and the fish is getting less and less, so now my first priority is to be sure that the resources will survive. My first priority is to be sure that my children can also eat fish and not see fish only in pictures in the newspapers.

I have ordered a scientific study by the (European) Commission to have some clear figures about the future. This study says that by 2022 only six of the 136 species for which we have policies will be healthy. So I had to realise that I do not have a choice between the environmental aspect and the financial aspect (of fisheries). If we do not change the policy, we will have no fish and we will have no fishermen.

Q: Are your efforts to reform fisheries policy likely to be thwarted by EU governments? A: We have to decide together. If they (the governments) see these figures, they have to realise they do not have any other options. I’m not sure it will be a successful exercise but at least we have to try. It would be very easy to do nothing.

Q: Bluefin tuna is known to be at particular risk and the surrounding issues will be discussed shortly by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). What will you be asking ICCAT to do? A: We have to decide what to do. Are we going to have a new quota at ICCAT or are we going to have an international ban (on bluefin tuna fishing)? We will see. It depends on the scientific advice (to be given to the European Commission in October).

One thing is sure: we will do the best we can. With bluefin tuna, we are not sure if we will still have it after two or three years. Maybe five years.

Q: The EU’s fisheries agreement with Morocco will expire next year. Controversially, this accord gives European vessels the opportunity to fish off western Sahara — occupied by Morocco since 1975 — on the condition that their operations bring tangible benefits to the indigenous Sahrawi people. Have you any evidence that the Sahrawis have actually derived any benefit from the agreement? A: When I came here, I inherited these fisheries partnership agreements. And I’m afraid to say that the framework (under which the agreements were signed) permitted us to sign this agreement without having a human rights clause. With the CFP reform, we will have humanitarian and human rights clauses inside the agreements.

With the Morocco agreement, there is a clause about giving added value to the local people. So I have gone to the Moroccan government and said: “This is what we have signed; inform me what is the added-value given to them.” They (the Moroccans) did answer but I have to say they are not very willing to cooperate on this issue.

We have to decide now in the two months ahead of us what we are going to do. If we are not going to renew the protocol, that means that our vessels cannot fish any more. What I can say is that I am not persuaded about the added value for the local people. And I will not be until the Moroccan government gives me data about this.

Q: You will also have to decide about whether several fisheries agreements with other African states should be renewed in the coming years. Some environmental and anti-poverty campaigners argue that these agreements are about ensuring profits for a relatively small number of European fishermen than about helping Africa. Do you agree? A: What I have decided is that I am not going to sign new agreements until I have this new framework that I have told you about. Until then I am going to respect the agreements signed by my predecessor (Joe Borg) with Mauritania and other countries. But I am going to see if the beneficiaries of these agreements are local people.

What I have to do is try to be sure that the money we give goes to the local people. In this new framework, the fishing industry is going to have to pay for access (to African waters) and the European Commission is going to pay for the benefits of the local people. We are not going to pay any more for the access. Industry has to pay for their own burdens.

Q: You are perhaps the most left-wing member of the European Commission. Are you concerned that the largely right-leaning governments in the EU are using the economic crisis in your native Greece and other countries as a pretext for pushing through a regressive ideologically driven programme of cutbacks to social protection programmes? A: Greece has such a great debt, that we cannot say that cuts even in pensions are against the social security system. We have to be sure that our economy will survive this turmoil.

Austerity measures have to be combined with measures for growth and employment and the competitiveness of the European economy. This is the way out. I cannot see any other way. I am trying to find other recipes. But there are none. We cannot ignore the debt, even if we are left or right.

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