The continuing experiment that is the EU ought to be a model of progress for the world, and perhaps in some ways it is, a response to the cries of ‘Never Again’ that rose up at the end of the 2nd World War. But in regulating its fisheries, protecting its fish from over-exploitation, it has clearly failed.
Still, after decades of efforts, some progress occurred over the past few weeks, resulting in a general ban on discards or bycatch, and greater regulation of individual fisheries to meet the minimum requirements of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) management. Considering the various conflicting needs of so many nations, this is good news.
On the other hand, it is a disappointing outcome. It targets a 5% discard rate rather than zero, implemented gradually over the next decade, and some species will still be exempt. It should have banned all deep-water bottom-trawling, but instead proposes not to trawl sites that are identified as particularly vulnerable. Left undecided is how to enforce the new regulations and how to fund the enforcement. Meanwhile subsidies persist for a fleet that is 2-3 times as large as it should be.
Opposition to stronger outcomes came from Spain and France, and from industrial-sized vessels, all of which think they will be harmed even by the limited new regulations: they maintain the changes will happen too quickly, will be too hard to implement, and will be too expensive.
They are wrong. There are quite a few examples elsewhere that the EU could look to.
One is nearby, in Norway, not a member of the EU. Twenty five years ago, in response to dwindling cod stocks, Norway initiated a zero discard policy. More selective gear was used – letting smaller fish escape rather than become bycatch, and some fishing grounds were closed, particularly where the smaller fish were more common. To enforce the ban on discards, vessels have been closely monitored.
As fish populations have recovered, catch sizes have increased. Norway also emphasizes ecosystem-based management, science-based decisions on quotas, and precautionary approaches – approaches hard to find in the new EU agreements. And if Norway can do it, so can the EU, as the Norwegians like to point out.
Another example is from the central coast of California. Fishing, including bottom-trawling, pretty well ceased in Moro Bay, south of Monterrey, for all the usual reasons. But then the Nature Conservancy proposed a new approach. With the agreement of the fishermen of Moro Bay, they bought up all the trawl fishing licenses, and the fishermen either left the fishery, or have leased permits back from the Conservancy. The intent – and the outcome – has been to support, yet reduce the level of trawling to a sustainable level, and to try to mitigate its impact.
And there’s more. In 2005, with the involvement of the fishermen and the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund mediated the designation of 3.8 million acres of coastal waters on the central coast as a no-trawling zone. Not the whole coast but a compromise intended to support fishing, and fishing communities, at a reduced but sustainable level.
The partnership has involved fishermen, community leaders, scientists, and state and federal agencies. This appears to be true co-management. And it is another model that can be exported, if only oppositional lobbyists can be successfully induced to recognize the need to compromise. When the alternative becomes a much wider ban on trawling, compromise is the only option.
We know now that bycatch can be eliminated. Trawling can be limited and regulated. Deep-water trawling can be banned. Enforcement is feasible. Subsidies can be used judiciously, even eliminated. Fleet size can be reduced. Cooperation among all the players is achievable. Ecosystem-based management is possible.
And then fishing is actually sustainable.
So listen up, EU. At stake is the sustainability, the viability of fish stocks in European waters.