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A fisherman's tale of greed and folly
The barren seas
Special report: Global fishing in crisis
Paul Brown and James Meikle
Monday August 14, 2000
World fish stocks are seriously depleted. More and more vessels are chasing fewer and fewer fish, and prices are soaring. Attempts to control overfishing and save the industry from collapse have failed for 30 years. Over the next three days Guardian reporters assess the crisis and ask what can be done
Hundreds of thousands of people once dependent on the fishing industry are looking for work and many more are struggling to replace once plentiful food supplies. In Britain alone, sea fishing now employs fewer than 18,000 people. Fifty years ago it was nearly 48,000.
Despite bigger boats with better technology, and fleets that are able to range over any stretch of the oceans that cover two-thirds of the planet, world fish catches are going down. Big species such as tuna and cod are disappearing, fished to virtual extinction in many places.
Two years ago the UN estimated that nearly half the world's fish stocks were fully exploited and if stocks were to have a chance of recovery one in three of the world's fishing boats would have to stop fishing. Nearly 70% of the world's stocks are in need of urgent management, the UN food and agriculture organisation said.
In June all nine of the North Sea commercial fish stocks were described by European scientists as "outside safe biological limits" and 67% of all stocks in the north-east Atlantic were severely depleted or in danger of becoming so. And with bigger fish in serious decline smaller species, mackerel, sardines and anchovies, are now the main targets.
Much of this fishing effort on smaller species does not go to the shops but to make food for fish farms. With stocks of larger wild fish species decreasing, fish farming is a worldwide boom industry. This year fish farming will provide one quarter of the fish sold for human consumption.
But in Europe, in the supermarkets, consumers will hardly notice. Prices are going up and fish is already far more expensive than meat. The varieties have changed too, but there is no obvious shortage of supplies.
Europe's stocks of fish are badly depleted because of 20 years of disastrous EU fishing policy. Annual ritual rejections of scientific advice about reducing catches to safeguard stocks, coupled with the ducking of difficult decisions on cutting fleet sizes, have led to mismanagement on a scandalous scale.
Elliot Morley, British fisheries minister, admits that politicians have in the past failed to prevent the depletion of stocks, but denies the EU's claim that the UK has been one of the worst offenders.
The European commission revealed this summer that the UK fleet has been cut by only 1% in the last three years instead of the 11% the government promised in 1997. Mr Morley says £50m has been spent and the fleet is down. "Despite what they say we are cutting fishing effort," he said.
Controlling net sizes, the number of days boats can go to sea and effective satellite monitoring to combat cheating could all play a part in managing stocks, Mr Morley added.
But Franz Fischler, the EU fisheries commissioner, is angry that carefully negotiated reductions among 13 fishing nations have failed to make any impact on fishing effort in Europe. He said: "If anything the increase in technology in that time has made it easier and easier to pinpoint and catch the few fish that remain."
Cod stocks in the North Sea are down to one tenth of the level of 30 years ago and in danger of extinction. The cod quota this year is 34,301 tonnes. Catches to July 13 were 13,305 tonnes, so low because fishermen just cannot find the fish.
But the EU has disguised its chronic inability to manage once abundant fish stocks by using its financial clout to ensure that in Europe there is always enough fish to meet consumer demand. Its fleets now deplete the fisheries of Africa and South America. They deprive local people of food and work, and as they destroy once healthy stocks round the globe, they compete with other rich nations for ever-dwindling supplies.
The fishing boats that are stripping the world's seas are not small local vessels seen in picturesque Cornish harbours, but giant floating freezer factories equipped with the most sophisticated radar locaters and satellite technology. Fish have no chance of escape. Entire shoals are surrounded by nets and sucked in for processing and freezing, leaving nothing left in the sea to breed and replenish the stocks.
Around £70m a year is paid to developing countries to allow 1,300 European boats to fish in their waters. A similar amount is paid to ship owners in subsidies to build new superboats. The excuse is that these subsidies to shipyards and boat owners finance 20,000 direct fishermen's jobs and another 50,000 in shipbuilding and processing plants in Europe. Mr Morley says this has to end but so far Britain has been outvoted.
It is not just a European problem. Around the world from Japan to north America ever bigger trawlers fish and freeze 24 hours a day to take advantage of faraway fishing grounds. They then dock to sell their catch at the nearest port for export to distant cities. Exotic species are being introduced to home markets to satisfy a demand that can no longer be met from fished-out local seas.
More than half the fish consumed in Europe is now imported because of depleted home water stocks. The EU has "bought" a share of the stocks of 14 African countries and is looking for more. The EU can and does outbid the Russians and other rival fishing fleets for a share of the less developed fisheries.
In theory this should be good news for both the European consumer and the long- term health of the fish stocks because the EU claims it believes in sustainable fisheries. But the community's record is appalling, according to its detractors.
While the EU argues that "export" of the surplus fishing capacity from the North Atlantic by buying fishing rights in developing countries is an extension of a traditional distant water fishing effort of countries such as the UK, Spain and Portugal, there is increasing anger at misuse of the system both in Brussels and in countries that are the "victims" of the fleets.
Morocco has thrown out the EU from its waters after years of allowing exploitation by Spanish boats. The EU has paid the Spanish compensation and told them to tie up their boats while they try to buy more rights elsewhere. Chile responded by closing its harbours to EU vessels.
Euan Dunn, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' fisheries officer, said: "We are exporting our own mismanagement of Europe's fish stocks to the developing world. We are moving from stock to stock, systematically destroying it and moving on to the next. The EU fishing policy stinks and there will soon be very few fish to catch."
Evidence is mounting that once a fish stock is overfished it may never recover. The best example is cod in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, once the most prolific fishery in the world.
Despite repeated warnings from scientists, the politicians allowed fishing to continue until the cod stocks collapsed. The fishery was closed in 1992 to allow stocks to recover, throwing more than 40,000 people out of work.
At worst the fishery was expected to be closed for three years. Eight years later the cod have not come back.
There are a number of theories why this should be, from the wrong water temperature for breeding, to seals eating them, but the most likely is that the cod's niche in the sea has been taken by other species. Predators such as dogfish eat their eggs and they may never recover.
Despite the fact that cod stocks continued to decline, the politicians in Canada refused to take scientific advice to keep the fishery closed, and suppressed a report it had commissioned that recommended the cod be declared an endangered species.
And there is increasing evidence that once cod are taken out of the eco-system the balance changes.
In both Newfoundland and on the shores of the UK, where cod stocks are in dire straits, shrimps and longuistinas, the food that cod usually eat, have ballooned in numbers. In Scotland, for example, this group of prawn type species - nephrops as they are known - are now as important a catch as haddock, and sold as scampi are far more numerous and valuable than cod.
This targeting of smaller and smaller but suddenly more numerous creatures, once the prey of larger fish which have nearly all been caught, is called "fishing down the food chain". Initially it leads to higher catches but then that source too is exhausted.
The Norwegians have recently suggested harvesting the plankton, the smallest living organisms of the ocean which include the larvae of many fish and shellfish, in order to provide food for fish farms.
Mr Dunn said: "This is taking fishing down the food chain to its ultimate conclusion and wiping out all stocks at source, literally emptying the oceans of life and preventing any recovery. It cannot be allowed to happen."
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 2000