Opinion: Rock Salmon and Chips anyone?

Fish and Chips

Before the rise in popularity of Indian curries, kebabs and Chinese take aways, battered fish and chips were considered the British national dish. Rock salmon was a staple – among the cheapest offerings in fish and chip shops around the country. However, demand for “rock salmon” devastated the shark’s population off the coasts of Britain and France, where the spiny dogfish is widely considered to be critically endangered.

The Common Fisheries Policy was introduced by the European Union in the 1970s to ensure a profitable and sustainable fishing industry – an objective in which it has completely failed.

After 40 years of unsustainable fishing under the Common Fisheries Policy, European fish stocks have been seriously depleted. Today, over 70% of fish stocks are overfished.

The Common Fisheries Policy favours the most powerful parts of the fishing industry, with the highest environmental impact.  Many boats using unsustainable, often destructive, methods have been awarded fishing rights (quota) and have received billions in taxpayer subsidies.

This summer the European Commission finally put forward an agreement to phase-in a ban on discards from 2014 to 2018 – a key step to preserving fish stocks. Discard refers to the wasteful practice of throwing away healthy and edible fish at sea.

However, the ban may be implemented too late to save some species. Greenpeace said it was disappointed by the outcome. Its oceans campaigner, Willie Mackenzie, said: “UK fisheries minister Richard Benyon has hailed the Luxembourg meeting as a ‘breakthrough’ but Greenpeace disagrees. What happened overnight proves a stubborn resistance to change tack, and leaves EU fisheries reform hanging in the balance. Timelines are vague and too long term, the text on key issues like MSY [maximum sustainable yield] is incredibly weak, and there is a real risk that fish and fishermen are facing another 10 years of overfishing and stock decline, with real consequences for species like cod, hake and tuna.”

More than 1m tonnes of healthy fish are annually thrown back dead into the sea by fishermen – due to EU rules, or in order to maximise their profits – and a ban on discarding fish such as mackerel and herring is likely from 2014. However for other very pressurised species such as cod, haddock, plaice and sole, the ban could be phased in from 2015, and not be fully in force until 2018. That may be too late to be effective.

What should Lib Dems be campaigning for?

  • Give fishing rights to those who can clearly demonstrate environmental and social benefits, rewarding those who support local communities and look after their fisheries.
  • Stop using public money to bankroll destructive fishing practices both in Europe and around the world, and ensure that strict European rules apply equally to all European vessels wherever they fish.
  • Put the health of our seas and oceans, and the fish stocks they support, at the very heart of the Common Fisheries Policy. The Common Fisheries Policy must bring an end to needless discarding, match fishing effort to fish stocks and create a better tomorrow for those that fish sustainably.

* Joe Bourke is an accountant and university lecturer, Chair of ALTER, and Chair of Hounslow Liberal Democrats.

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18 Comments

  • coldcomfort 28th Aug '12 - 2:42pm

    Before the EU cops all the blame for the catastrophe of the fisheries policy let’s just remember that , as with most cock ups laid at Brussels door, it has been ferocious lobbying over the years by individual national fisheries ministers in defence of their own industry that has led to this situation. As New Zealand has demonstrated over about the last 20yrs the only real way to control overfishing is large areas of the seas being declared ‘No Take Zones’.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Aug '12 - 4:58pm

    I always assumed the point of discards is to prevent cases where fish of a protected species is caught “accidentally” and then sold for profit on the grounds “oh dear, but now we have it, let’s not waste it”.

  • Richard Dean 28th Aug '12 - 9:39pm

    Interesting article Joe, thanks for brightening my evening! But I disagree that the Common Fisheries Policy is necessarily a failure or something to be blamed – to make that judgment we would need to know what would have happened without the policy, and that is somewhat speculative. How much does the policy cost? Wikipedia suggests €931 million in 2004, which is something like €3 per person in the EU – not much!

    I’m puzzled about the apparent condemnation of vested interests – if you make your money from fishing, whether fisherman or investor, it’s surely in your interest to maintain fish stocks? So surely the way forward is to make use of vested interests, rather than fight them? Also, condemning the discard rules seems puzzling – without the discard rules it would presumably be perfectly feasible for unethical fishing organizations to catch above quote accidentally on purpose, leading to even higher overfishing. However, 1 million tonnes a year looks large compared t the official quotas of around 6 or 7 million tonnes (Wikipedia numbers) – I wonder what is really happening here?

    One of the vested interests consists of the population of Europe, who no doubt want fish to eat at reasonable prices, and low taxes. Stopping the use of public money to bankroll destruction is certainly in our interests. Can Europe insist that EU rules apply “wherever” EU vessels fish – including outside EU waters? Isn’t this a case for a wider international body instead?

  • Richard Swales 29th Aug '12 - 11:44am

    Isn’t there a lake in the USA, which was given a name on maps that the local native americans had said when asked about the lake? The “name” when translated properly was “You fish on your side and I fish on the other side and nobody fishes in the middle.” Sounds like a good policy for the North Sea.

  • Fish catches are falling around the world, despite the fact that expanding fleets are fishing ever more intensively. Some commercially important stocks are in such a critical state that all fishing has been shut down, or sharply curtailed. Hundreds of millions of people traditionally dependent on fishing for food and livelihoods face resource depletion, competition from industrial and distant water fleets, and loss of access to traditional marine food supplies.
    Rising demand and decreasing stocks have led to increased mechanization, over-capitalization of the industry and the buildup of excessive fishing fleets, particularly of the larger-scale fishing vessels that are responsible for the bulk of overfishing related problems worldwide.
    Since 1970, the world’s fishing fleet has expanded twice as fast as world catches. The fishing fleet in China, the world’s leading fish producer, is now around six times the size it was in 1979. As a result, excess fishing capacity has reached alarming proportions.
    The increased fishing pressure and the competition amongst fishing nations and their fleets severely stresses fish stocks and the marine environment. The widespread use of unselective fishing gear and indiscriminate practices result in one-quarter of the all the fish brought on board fishing vessels each year being discarded, usually dead or dying, back to the sea.
    Commercial fishing vessels globally throw back on average about 27 million tons of unwanted fish annually. That amounts to about half of all the fish caught from the oceans each year that are consumed directly by humans.
    Governments around the world have played an important part in fueling the expansion of excessive fishing capacity and overexploitation by providing lucrative subsidies, taxpayer funded handouts. On a global scale, these destructive subsidies run up to $50 billion a year.
    The member countries of the European Union have regularly bypassed scientific advice when setting annual catch quotas: when scientists from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas recommended a 40 percent cut in the 1995 hake catch to protect the stocks, EU fisheries ministers agreed to a mere five percent cut.
    Governments and industry are responsible for ensuring swift action to bring about urgent reforms, including substantial fleet reductions and substantial cutbacks in allowable catches, the elimination of destructive subsidies, major reductions in bycatch and waste, and more stringent environmental controls over fishing operations. The full utilization of available fish stocks and profit maximization for industry have been the key goals of short-sighted fisheries development, while protection for the environment has taken a back seat. This has proven to be the formula for disaster in fishery after fishery, the world over, with the disastrous consequences for marine ecosystems and humanity already plainly visible around the world.
    Yesterday, a Libdem activist pointed out to me that fisheries policy is not a topic you encounter on the doorstep when canvassing voters. While true, this could also have been said of MP’s expenses before the Telegraph stories were published or bankers bonuses before the banking crisis. Must we wait until European fisheries are proven to be on their death bed before effective remedial action is taken. What will we answer when asked – Why did the government of the day not take action before it was too late?

  • Richard Dean 29th Aug '12 - 2:58pm

    si this article about Europe or the world? If there is a tragedy of commons playing out globally, then it needs to be addressed globally. Europe controls a relatively small area of the fishable oceans. The traditional answer to commons issues seems to be that the world waits until the eve of destruction before anything is done. There ought to be other solutions.

    Throwing dead fish back into the sea is not without its environmental benefits. Those dead fish get eaten and so help to sustain the marine ecosystem. Discards are a waste of fishing time, and so cost money. One way to reduce discards could be to help fishing fleets find ways of catching less of what is not wanted. Indeed, it seems likely that larger fishing companies already invest in selective fishing gear – perhaps it is the smaller operators who are discarding most?

    Scientific advice is not infallible or even always unbiassed – with ess the East Anglia fisaco a few years ago. And it has to be balanced against other factors.

  • Richard,

    European fisheries constitute the largest in the world. Over-fishing is a global problem. Of the 15 major fishing regions in the world, the UN has concluded that four are fully depleted and the remainder are in serious decline. Fishing stocks are being depleted faster than they can reproduce across all the oceans of the world.

    The commission have proposed a ban on discards – see CFP reform – the discard ban for reasoning . The proposed agreement has still to pass through the EU parliament. The packge of proposed reforms include:

    • Take action against over-fishing and in favourof the sustainable management of fish.
    • Ensure productivity of fish stocksto maximise long-term yield.
    • Multi-annual plans governed by ecosystem approach.
    • Simplified rules and decentralised management.
    • System of transferable fishing concessions.
    • Measures beneficial to small-scale fisheries.
    • Ban on discards.
    • New marketing standards and clearer labelling.
    • Better framework for aquaculture.
    • EU financial assistance to support sustainability objectives.
    • Up-to-date information on state of marine resources.
    • International responsibility.

    In international and regional organisations, the EU will step up its role of honest broker for sustainability and conservation of fish stocks and marine biodiversity. It will aim to establish strong alliances and undertake actions with key partners to combat illegal fishing and reduce overcapacity. In bilateral fishing agreements with non-EU countries, the EU will promote sustainability, good governance and the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

  • Richard Dean 29th Aug '12 - 5:52pm

    Joe, thanks for your info.

    http://www.wri.org/publication/content/8384 seems to suggest that European fishing is not an overwhelming fraction of world fishing.

    http://www.globalchange.umich.edu/globalchange2/current/lectures/fisheries/fisheries.html seems to suggest the annual fish catch os 100 million tons globally.

    Both websites agree there is a major problem, but the solution is less clear. It is surely realistic to guess that unilateral action by Europe may have rather limited effect globally? Better to act through the UN?.

  • Jeremy Percy 29th Aug '12 - 8:18pm

    Getting back to the title of the piece, the demise of the Rock Salmon, i.e. Spurdog is as good an example as any of the one size fits all approach to european and indeed domestic fisheries management.
    I longlined for this species in the North Sea and English Channel for some years. We hand baited the hooks and importantly took the fish off by hand. It was, and still would be a sustainable fishery if there had been a form of differentiated management of the fishery.
    Unfortunately, there wasn’t and the influx of Autoliners, able to shoot and haul tens of thousands of hooks 24 / 7, together with miles of deep set nets resulted in a rapid decline that spurred the introduction of a Total Allowable Catch, followed by ever reducing quotas, followed by a complete ban.
    If on the other hand, fishing effort had been limited to low impact methods, i.e. long lining with hand baiting and manual fish removal [the point here is that taking fish off by hand slows down the hauling speed thereby restricting the amount of gear one can use, it also ensures that any fish discarded survive as the alternative ‘fish stripper’ device used on automatic systems simply pulls the hook between two round bars, tugging the hook from the fish and often taking the lower jaw with it. Fish then discarded have little effective chance of survival}.
    Where larger vessels can then steam off elsewhere to pursue other fish stocks, small scale local boats are just that, restricted in their ability to work very far from their home port and therefore dependent on the fish coming to them.
    Whilst it is clearly not in the interest of larger operators to have any form of differentiated management, access to fish stocks, i.e. quota, based on impact, rather than quasi historic rights and economic muscle would be a good first step towards rewarding those who fish sustainably and whose socio-economic and environmental credentials deserve better recognition and reward.

  • Jeremy,

    that is an authoratative first hand account of how we got to where we are today. The recommendations you make are consistent with examples of successful fisheries management in other regions e.g. the Salmon runs and Halibut fisheries of S.E. Alaska that camr close to being wiped out in the 1950/1960’s.

    I am not sure that many people realise just what is out there trawling the seas. A modern ‘factory’ supertrawler can be longer than a football field and capable of catching and processing into various products up to 200 tons of fish daily. One of the world’s biggest trawl nets could encircle more than a dozen “jumbo jet” Boeing 747 aircraft at its opening. Ships deploying such nets have a capture rate of about ten tons of fish per hour.

    That kind of industrial scale harvesting of fish stocks is ruinous. The world’s marine catch has increased more than four times in the past 40 years — from 18.5 million tons in 1952 to 89 million tons in 1989, but that growth is at great cost to the environment, and ultimately, perhaps to world food security. Several decades of overfishing in most of the world’s major fisheries has pushed many commercially important fish populations into steep declines Canada’s northern cod collapse, for example. The biological diversity of the world’s oceans is threatend by the highly competitive race to catch enough fish to keep pace with rising international demand.

    There are about 3.5 million vessels boats currently fishing in the world’s oceans. Intense competition between countries and rival fleets over access to fishing grounds has sparked numerous international disputes over fishing rights in recent years.

    Since 1989 the worlds annual catch has been dropping. Many argue that this decrease is an indication that fishing has oversteppped natures’s limits. The FAO warns that the rising demand for fish and fish products, combined with shrinking global catches from declining stocks, will soon lead to the point where there will be a shortfall of fish for human consumption of more than 20 million tonnes each year. Average annual consumption of fish caught in marine and inland waters could fall from 10.2 kilograms per person in 1993 to somewhere between 5.1 and 7.6 kilograms by 2050. This threatens the one billion people, mostly in developing countries, who rely on fish as a principle source of protein.

    Along with the massive wasteful discard of edible fish, millions of other marine animals are being incidentally captured and killed in fishing operations. Some fishing gear is particularly deadly for certain animals in some situations. Longline fishing boats, of the kind you describe, kill many tens of thousands of albatross each year in southern hemisphere oceans. Driftnets indiscriminately kill millions of marine creatures, while targetting for just one or two commercially valuable species. Marine mammals are frequently killed in great numbers in trawls, set nets and purse seine nets. In addition there is severe damage caused by fishing operations that use destructive gear and fishing practices, like bottom trawling, that physically disturbs marine habitats such as the ocean floor, sea grass beds or coral reefs.

    Today, there isn’t a fishing region in the world that does not suffer from fisheries management decisions designed to satisfy short-term economic or political objectives (or both) rather than protecting the marine environment and conserving fish populations. Commercial fishing in most countries has been very poorly managed. Even in Europe and America where relatively advanced fisheries management systems have been in place for many years they have, almost without exception, failed to control the conditions and stem the abuses that lead to overfishing and destructive environmental impacts.

    The chronic failures of fisheries management in European waters of the northeast Atlantic and North Sea are particularly noteworthy since this area has probably the longest standing and greatest single concentration of fisheries research and management institutions in world. Yet, Europe’s fish stocks are plagued by overfishing, and massive excess fishing capacity. In the EU, as elsewhere, it seems that a fishery must be proven to be on its death bed before any remedial action is taken.

    In the United States a similar picture of failed fisheries management prevails. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency overseeing U.S. fisheries, 80 percent of the known commercially valuable fish populations (122 aquatic species) are currently either fully or overexploited; 67 species of these, among them bluefin tuna, swordfish, oysters, hard-shell and soft-shell clams and red snapper — are overexploited. A further 79 species continue to be exploited even though the status of their populations is unknown. Little wonder why this is so. The country’s eight regional fisheries management councils are primarily composed of those interests who benefit directly from increased catches: commercial fishers and other industry user groups. If the European Union and the United States are considered to be amongst the leaders in the field of fisheries conservation and management, we are in big trouble. Nature’s limits have been breached by too many fishing vessels catching too many fish, very often in wasteful and destructive ways, and it cannot be allowed to continue if the oceans and the human communities around the world that depend on them are to survive.

  • William,

    I have read Chris Davies comments EU Fishing deal “not enough” – Davies and will be following the progress of this legislation through the EU parliament with interest.

    Chris says “The debate now moves to the European Parliament. I hope that MEPs will work to close the loopholes and tie the hands of those who will seek to avoid any real commitment to change.” Let’s get behind him as a party, in his efforts to make a real difference this time.

  • “Fish catches are falling around the world, despite the fact that expanding fleets are fishing ever more intensively.”
    Joe I think you mean ‘because’ not ‘despite’.

    I remember seeing a several historical photographs of Cod fished from the North sea, which when compared with the fish being caught today showed that the fish being caught today are significantly smaller (18-24 inch compared to 4-5 feet long) for two reasons, firstly the fish being caught are much younger and secondly, because of the size of net mesh used, we have created an environment that favoured smaller fish.

    It is totally correct to lay the blame for the crisis in North sea fish stocks on the EU. Remember it was the ECC who demanded GB handed over control of fishing as a condition of membership back in the 1970’s (okay it was Ed Heath who was stupid enough to accede to this demand) and it has been under ECC/EU management ever since. Additionally, it was known at the time that North Sea fish stocks were in need of strong management and that other member nations had already over fished their own waters. Hence what we are looking at is the long term failure of the EU, which does not bode well for other areas which require standing up to various national vested interests.

    Interestingly, fishing is one area where a UK withdraw from the EU could make a vast difference – a consequence that makes voting UKIP almost worthwhile…

    Interestingly, I don’t remember any other country having to hand over sover

  • Richard Dean 30th Aug '12 - 6:41pm

    There is a way of understanding Joe’s figures. It’s a bit gruesome, so sensitive or squeamish people should not read further …

    The planet has about 6 billion people. If the average lifespan is 60 years ( which is probably a high estimate), then the death rate is 6 billion divided by 60 per year, or 100 million people per year. If a dying person weight 40 kg on average, then the human death toll is equivalent to about 40 x 100 million kilos, or 4 million tons of humans per year.

    So taking 100 million tons of fish from the ocean annually means we are killing fish at 25 times the rate we ourselves are dying.

  • Richard,

    when you put it in those terms it sounds even more unsustainable than we already know it to be – particularly when you consider that such huge volumes of fish species are taken early in their lifespans, before they can reproduce.

  • Roland,

    While I agree with much of your comments, I am not sure where you are coming from with – “Interestingly, fishing is one area where a UK withdrawal from the EU could make a vast difference – a consequence that makes voting UKIP almost worthwhile…”

    I don’t think the UK can be effective in isolation. .Consider the practice of shark finning that the the UK is pressing the European parliament for a total ban on. Sharks are often highly migratory and regularly move across national and international boundaries. A UK ban alone on this highly destructive practice would do little to protect migratory shark poupulatiions. It is only in cooperarion with the EU that international pressure can by brought by the UK to end this practice.

  • Joe,

    Re: UKIP et al

    My comment re UKIP was more about North Sea fishing grounds and stock management. As both Iceland and New Zealand have shown, where fishing grounds are controlled by a single government, they can be more easily managed for the longer term good. By leaving the EU, and hence ripping up the T&C’s of membership, the the UK would automatically regain full control of “our” North sea fishing grounds …

    Yes internationally the UK can’t be effective in isolation, however my expectations of the effectiveness of an EU ban are very low, particularly it’s given recent history on fisheries policy…

    I am a little surprised that previous government shaven’t renegotiated EU access to UK fishing grounds, as effectively all fish taken by non-UK trawlers is part of our annual EU budget contribution… I mean in the current economic climate this has the potential to bring back onshore an industry that turns over several hundreds of millions of revenue per annum…

    Interestingly, fisheries is (one of several) major hurdles in the negotiations between Iceland and the EU; the Icelanders don’t want to give up the fishing grounds they have fought hard for, and who can blame them given what has happened to all the fishing grounds under EU control.

    My last point was for some reason truncated. I was going to posse the question as to what other EU member state has been asked to hand over management of resources within its territory ? I don’t remember us getting rights to mine the Ruhr or any of the East European countries being asked to let other EU nations farm their lands …

  • Roland,

    “As both Iceland and New Zealand have shown, where fishing grounds are controlled by a single government, they can be more easily managed for the longer term good.”

    I would wholeheartedly agree. The UK’s territorial waters however, only extend to 12 nautical miles in the North Sea. The border States; Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden all have exclusive economic zones in the North Sea, as would Scotland if they were to leave the Union.

    Maintenance of North Sea fisheries requires not only cooperation with other states on fisheries management but also environmental control to minimise the effect of pollution on fish stocks in these waters.

    Many of the North Sea demersal fish stocks have been at a low level for several years. The present exploitation rate is too high and cannot be regarded as sustainable. In an effort to improve the stock situation and thus provide for recovery, the EU and Norway have agreed to elaborate harvest strategies for these stocks as well as mackerel. The North Sea component of mackerel has been very low for many years. The present mackerel fishery in the North Sea is, however, taking place on fish migrating from spawning areas west of Ireland and from the Bay of Biscay into this area in the second half of the year. The North Sea herring stock has been at a low level for a number of years and needs careful management.

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