Monday, 19 October 2009

Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy - Maybe?

Ever since the cinema premier of the hugely revealing documentary 'The End of The Line', which exposes frailties in certain fisheries around the world, everybody has become an expert. The politician, the chef, the angler, the greenie, the organic and so on all now think they have a full insight into the plight of the worlds fisheries so much so they are polished in all aspects of fisheries management. Apparently the fisherman, the fish wholesaler and the fishmonger are clueless and have no understanding about the current situation of certain depleted species and are only interested in capitalising on the profits that can be made from fish. I can't speak for others but in my case this could be no further from the truth. With the TV premier of this documentary imminent i ask those who will watch it for the first time to listen to the words and not just be memorised by the shock factor pictures unveiling in front of your eyes. After watching we will all have an opinion, whether structured or not, however, few people have offered me any better suggestions on how to solve this problem other than 'talking about' buying pollack instead of cod or not buying blufin tuna that isn't available for them to buy anyway. Why? Because the documentary offers no clear insight or understanding into the subject of fisheries. Please enjoy some of my opinions, based around our more local situation of the European Union, and maybe it will also give an insight into how complex the fisheries world really is.

It could be argued that Britain and Europe must have a sustainable fishery to meet the requirements of consumer demand and coastal employment. In the majority of cases fish are common property, but can they still be treated as a free resource? Or will this continuation cause the extinction of many species? Fish resources are not only limited, but are increasingly insufficient, pointing to an argument that fish resources can no longer be treated as free. To implement this is a challenge; if tackled incorrectly the collapse of Eco-systems, entire food chains and huge economic hardships may result. Organisations throughout the world have been established to undertake these problems; Europe is no exception.

The common fisheries policy originated from the accession of three countries to the European union. With Great Britain, Denmark and Ireland’s application, the existing member states felt it was necessary to compile a policy concerning the fisheries in EU waters. This policy would attempt to protect and manage the existing and new member’s rights. The new members joined in 1973 with the basic foundation of the policy being laid down on November 3rd 1976; this coincided with the introduction of a 200-mile fisheries limit by the EEC. This agreement included management techniques in the form of total allowable catches (TACs) and individual quotas for each member state for each of the main fish stocks.

One problem that arises is the apportionment of TACs and quotas. The method of allocation is still based on an agreement reached in 1980 relating to relative stability of states; member states maintain their share of a TAC over time. Interestingly, it must be noted that fish stocks fluctuate, effort levels vary, technology improves and demands change, but TAC allocation methods stay the same. This approach seems somewhat static and although allocation is modified yearly within TACs it is probably the case that when they are at their lowest there are to many boats chasing to many fish (this may also be the case when set at highest levels as it is dependent on exploitation levels).

People in charge of setting TACs have on occasions been inexact, leading to collapses of certain stocks. The problem stems from data availability and the inaccurate scientific techniques used in quantification. Although indirectly associated with the common fisheries policy, assessment methods need to improve. More accurate data is essential and bias needs to be eliminated from mathematical models, it may be fair to assume that in submission of figures these problems may not be taken into consideration for political reasons. The continued setting of incorrect TACs may eventuate in a failure to conserve stocks (the key rationale behind the common fisheries policy), hence undermining the whole process in the eyes of fishermen. These and other techniques have essentially failed to safeguard fish stocks. This leads to the long-term future of fishing industries being unpredictable as stock depletion has failed to ensure a sustainable fishery.

The resident allocation of quotas could have become redundant in 2002, when the question of open access was addressed. It would seem that reform was fundamental in this area otherwise the community would continue with 10-year recesses resulting in no denouement of the issue. The engagement of free access was of course unrealisable, as this would require unanimity amongst member states which is highly unlikely. A more viable notion is regional or national control. Allocation would stay adequately constant, but regionalising of management and control will assist against the enigmas of enforcement.

Enforcement of laws and regulations are arduous and costly and with some fishermen just covering their variable costs, there will always be falsification in the system; it could probably be said that abuse is rife. Abuse in the system will proceed whilst fishermen have to contend for dwindling fish resources. So would an abatement of capacity in the fishing fleet resolve these problems? The accession of Spain and Portugal in 1986 put an augmenting burden onto Europe’s total catching fleet. Technically Spain is part of Europe, but at this stage they were not union members, so prior to their accession the majority of their vessels were fishing in distant non-EU waters. Once they had joined (after prolonged discussions), Europe’s fleet had the added problem of compensating for some of Spain’s vast fleet (17300 vessels). This expanded competition between vessels meant far too much power pursuing too few fish.

With continued accession of European countries coinciding with deficient polices, reform seems the only option. The largest consideration entails what areas can be amended and how many disturbances it may cause to the fisheries sector. It could be argued that increasing the level of officious bureaucracy into a system that is already over-bureaucratic, is unnecessary and definitely unwanted by the fishermen. This leads to the opinion that the common fisheries policy is politically driven. Members will negotiate between themselves to gain the best deal for their country, their fisherman, or more cynically their political party. The problem is the lower priority, given to conservation and long-term sustainability throughout negotiations.

If excluding the political interactions that obviously play such a large role in policy making, the reform must then directly reflect on the fleet, the main contributors to stock reduction. If through reform, the cheats in the system can be reduced or removed, the policies, in theory should work with greater efficiency. Convincing fisherman that regulations set by ‘armchair’ politicians are indeed beneficial, may be the most strenuous task. Being told how much you are authorised to catch after years of exploiting a free resource will obviously cause dissatisfaction in fishing sectors.

Allowing fishermen their own rights to the fish rather than be granted them by a European government may increase faith in the policies and may give good reasons to subscribe to their success. Allowing fisherman to buy into and sell out of these schemes would help to give them a sense of ownership. This could stop the immense problems of discarding, illegal net sizes and immoral bycatches as fishermen would be cheating a system they consider their own. Essentially, the system would become self-enforcing, thus taking the pressure from the already inadequate enforcement agencies. On the subject of discards it must be conceived that this behaviour is not only influenced by market opportunities, but in some cases it is in the direction of conservation. Obviously, it cannot be classed as conservation, therefore policies concerning this problem are unquestionably in need of reform.

These suggestions coinciding with developments of satellite tracking will aid the uncertainty of enforcing policies. By tracking catches to the point of sale, assurances that fish obtainable on the market were legally caught as part of a sustainability management scheme can be given.

The more extreme method of reform would entail a reduction in fleet capacity across the board. This is a feasible option if befitting compensation is given to members who choose to vacate the fleet and deploy their maritime skills elsewhere. The problem with this policy is many traditional fishing communities have few if any alternative sources of employment thus a return to politically sensitive issues. Decommissioning is an unavoidable evil. There will be no long-term future for the fishing industry unless fishing stocks are offered a chance to recuperate and, when recovered, the fish are harvested at a sustainable level.

This decommissioning may be prerequisite, but the techniques used are somewhat prejudiced. It must be unacceptable that states are decommissioning vessels, facilitating supplementary fishing opportunities in their waters for the fishing industry of their European partners. Also vast amounts of money are paid into cohesion funds to help the upgrading and upkeep of other countries fishing fleets. It may also be the case that some countries are paying more for the upkeep of partner’s vessels than to their own fisherman to eradicate theirs. When considering these points it is of no surprise that some members of the fishing industry object to the common fisheries policy.

Essentially, a reduction in fleet size will not initially enlarge stock sizes. If the TAC system remains, the quota of fish targeted by the decommissioned boat will be shared amongst other vessels. If this process continues it would be fair to say that socio-economic impacts will result, but the stock of fish is unlikely to be conserved. This argument leads directly into quota reductions, a highly sensitive issue that without accompaniment of decommissioning, would bankrupt fishermen without any compensation. Once a vessel has been scraped the equivalent quota should follow the same route.

To conclude, areas of the common fisheries policy require reform if sustainable fisheries are to be met. Fishermen require more stability and understanding of the regulations that are being enforced. This may be done through implementing schemes enabling them to buy into the rights of fish stocks and in turn reduce the obvious abuse to the system. Essentially, a policy that enforces itself will be more effective and may reduce problems of unnecessary bycatches and gear usage. A reduction in fishing effort will reduce the competition and catch per unit effort, making the fishery more efficient and less likely to hoard poachers. This will only work if quota levels are re-assessed alongside decommissioning. The communities are required to offer adequate compensation for those choosing to leave the industry for retraining in other sectors. The calculation and setting of total allowable catches need to be 1) more dynamic instead of the exceedingly static method deployed at the moment and 2) more accurate.

Finally, the issue of open access requires settlement with control being passed over to regional and national authorities, instead of being centralised in Brussels. This should ameliorate enforcement and management strategies that are currently inadequate.

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