Friday, 7 June 2013

Trawling for facts about the Common Fisheries Policy

Will Hutton wrote this piece for the Guardian a few days ago expressing his frustration with the UK government's failure to recognise the conservation potential of European Union fisheries policies. He argued that as fish do not recognise borders, states cannot work alone to manage stocks, so EU management was the best option for UK fisheries. He then went on to criticise British scepticism of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), and claimed this was based solely on knee-jerk anti-European sentiment within UK politics. I've listened to a lot of British fishermen on this topic, and spent a number of years poring over historical policy documents to try and understand how the CFP works, and I have to say that I disagree with a number of points Hutton makes in this article.

Fishermen deploying the nets of a North Sea midwater trawler

Firstly, fish may not "respect borders", but this has not prevented Norway (who shares an oceanic 'border' with the EU) from protecting its own nationally managed fish stocks as Europe's have dwindled. Further, if UK fisheries were not to be managed by Europe, that would not mean Britain would be acting unilaterally on conservation measures, as Hutton insinuates. Norway does not work alone to protect its stocks, but collaborates with other seafaring nations to establish the catch limits it wants, without giving up control over conservation of its fisheries. Many such regional fisheries management agreements are in place to help neighbouring states co-manage straddling stocks. Using these, Norwegians have cooperatively manage their fisheries, as have other non-CFP European states, such as  Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Hutton then states that "the danger for any one country acting unilaterally to husband fish stocks and ban the practice of discarding dead fish is that if others do not follow suit it will be the sucker". He goes on to claim that this problem can only be solved by European states working together under the CFP. Again, I would respectfully disagree with this assertion. In Norway, where ministers declined to join the EU because they did not want to lose control over their fisheries, a 'unilateral' discard ban has been in place since 1987. Discarding has also been banned in Iceland since 1989, and Greenland and the Faroes have similar rules. Moving beyond Europe, Canada, New Zealand and Namibia - all of which have managed their fish stocks nationally, and comparatively successfully - have all banned certain discarding practices. These countries have been celebrated worldwide for their successes in stock management, and none has become "the sucker".

Hutton claims that the biggest problem in fisheries is "huge factory ships" that "hoover up everything in their wake". Regardless of the environmental arguments about small- versus large-scale fishing, European CFP management fundamentally favours bigger boats. Firstly, and most simply, this is because smaller boats don't travel as far, so extended access to the 'common pond' of European waters primarily benefits larger boats. Small boats would lose very little if a 200nm limit was imposed.

This was clear to the delegates negotiating Britain's accession to the EU in the 1970s. They were torn between protecting the rights of small-scale fishers (by limiting the access of large-scale foreign distant-water fleets to UK inshore waters) and extending the rights of our own distant-water fleet, who had just been pushed out of Iceland by their claim of a 200nm exclusive fishing zone. In the end, the delegates decided that access to the waters of Greenland, Norway and the Faroe Islands (all of which were also in the process of becoming part of the EU) would make up, economically, for any local losses. Unfortunately, those states all made the opposite decision, and declined to extend access to their waters to other EU member states. To protect small-scale fishers, a temporary protection of 6nm from the coast was agreed, but it is written into the CFP that this protection is only temporary and can be revoked.

The EU has also spent a lot of money 'modernising' the fleet by building bigger, more efficient fishing boats. In the words of Swedish Green Party MEP Isabella Lövin, the key problem with EU fisheries policy is that it was “modeled after agricultural policy. You provide fertilizer and farming equipment, you get more vegetables. So they used the same model in fishing — you increase the number of boats, you get more fish. But it doesn’t work that way,” she said. “You end up with less fish.” A recent investigation by the ICIJ found that the EU subsidised large-scale fishing vessels in Spain even after they had been caught fishing illegally. Between 1996 and 2010, the EU and Spain paid "pirate" trawler magnate Vidal Armadores - who has been convicted of numerous counts of illegal fishing - at least €8.2 million in subsidies.

Although this funding for modernisation has been reduced in recent years, it is still significant. A 2011 Greenpeace report looked at EU subsidies to three of largest factory ship companies in Europe (processing oily fish like herring and mackerel) and found that they received between €50 and €100 million in direct and indirect EU subsidies annually. This figure includes the EU spending tax payers' money on morally and ecologically dubious 'access agreements' that allow factory ships to fish in the waters of poor African states.

In this round of CFP reform, the European Commission proposed implementing a Europe-wide "ITQ" market for fishing rights. One of the best documented impacts of using this method to manage fisheries ("individual transferable quotas", or ITQs, allow the right to catch fish to be bought and sold) is that the fishery is concentrated into the hands of a small number of very large boats. The Commission wanted to implement just such a system for the whole of Europe, but their proposal was rejected by national governments.

Hutton then goes on to praise aspects of the new CFP. He celebrated the upcoming shift to setting quota based on maximum sustainable yield (MSY) and the implementation of a discard ban. However, these management measures can only be properly effective if quotas are set at a level that very accurately reflects local conditions - something that is very hard to do inside a bureaucratic, centrally managed and extremely top-down system - all of which the CFP is. Fisheries are inherently unstable and difficult to predict, and iterative, sensitive and locally based management is the best way to deal with this. Unfortunately, this is not something that the CFP allows. If, for example, a group of local fishers become concerned about the size of cod on certain fishing grounds, they could collectively decide to place a temporary moratorium on fishing in that area, and even go to their national governments to have this ban formalised. However, these rules will only apply to national boats, and there is nothing that managers can do to stop other European vessels steaming in and scooping up all the smaller fish. As one frustrated fishermen remarked "we realised after that its better to just not bother." This means it is hard to create marine conservation zones (MCZs) outside of the 6nm inshore seas, where other European boats are also fishing, so MCZs often end up disproportionally impacting small-scale fishing.

To sum up, I believe that it is a misrepresentation on the part of Will Hutton to paint fishing industry concerns about the CFP as nothing more than anti-European rhetoric. There are numerous ways in which EU management is problematic for UK fisheries, and fisher antipathy to the policy should not be so cursorily dismissed. Even if you have little faith in the opinions of fishers (as appears to be the case with most media commentators), the fact remains that if we look at the countries with Europe's healthiest fish stocks (Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands), none are party to the CFP. As a young, left leaning (and hopefully at least a little cosmopolitan) person, I'm aware of the political implications of stating an anti-European opinion. However, I would balk at ever calling the CFP a successful environmental policy. There are considerable successes in European environmental governance,  such as EU regulations on trans-boundary air-pollution, and the strict recycling directives. The CFP is definitely not one of these. Sceptic that I am, I can't help thinking that the current reform will not change this, though I'd love to be proven wrong.