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The future of fishing

There's widespread agreement the North Sea is severely overfished but will EU quotas be altered next

Chronic overfishing in the North Sea has prompted environmental groups including Greenpeace to warn that stocks are in danger of becoming dangerously depleted.

Indeed, so bad has the problem become, scientists in Europe and Canada argue if fishing continues at current rates seafood in the North Sea will be completely extinct by 2050.

But will this mean that the fishing quotas imposed by the EU in 2002 will be altered when the EU Council of Ministers will review the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in December?

Scientists and environmentalists argue changes must be made.

Yet Scottish fishermen see fish stocks rebounding to healthy levels, thanks to the quotas.

In 2002, ministers met to find a better way to manage fisheries and the availability of fish populations across the EU.

Alarmed by reports that fish stocks were disappearing, ministers made a radical departure from previous EU policies. They significantly cut the amount of days fishermen could spend at sea from 30 to 15 per month and severely limited the amount of certain species of fish that could be caught in a given year.

They also insisted that fishing fleets in all member states be slashed significantly and arranged to financially reimburse those fishermen whose boats were decommissioned.

The most lasting change brought on by this CFP was the landmark shift in perspective, from focusing only short-term gains to working for a more long-term management of the fishing industry. Prior to 2002, “The thinking was, if we didn’t grab as much fish as we could, somebody else would,” said Mike Park, a retired skipper who scoured the North Sea for fish for thirty years.

But five years after imposing severe quotas the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea issues dire annual warnings to the EU, and maintains that “target fisheries should not be permitted... TACs [Total Allowable Catches] should be set at zero for the year 2008”.

Last month, the House of Lords declared the CFP a failure in its own five-year review. “We conclude that on most indicators, the Common Fisheries Policy has failed: overcapacity in the fishing fleets of the Member States, poor compliance, uneven enforcement, and a stiflingly prescriptive legislative process all persist, while fish stocks remain depleted,” the report begins.

John Buchan, a trawler skipper from Peterhead, Scotland, agrees. “There’s not a single Scottish fisherman who doesn’t want out of the CFP,” he said.

The policy has had limited success argues Ann Bell, the Executive Chairman of the North Sea Regional Advisory Council, which monitors fish stocks and makes recommendations to the European Commission. “The CFP isn’t working, so they’ll have to change a part of it,” she said, referring to the recovery of cod and herring stocks. But at least now, she says, they at least have the ability to negotiate.

Elliot Morley MP, who as Fisheries Minister played a key role in the 2002 negotiations, says it is unfair to blame the CFP for not protecting fish stocks from the threat of extinction. “It’s certainly not been a huge success,” he said. “But the fault is really a political failure – ministers ignore the science, and give in to the pressure from their own industries. The problem with the CFP was that it was not science-dominated, it was politically dominated.”

So what needs to be changed?

Morley believes the biggest change to the CFP should be how it measures fishing capacity. “We’ve tried to cut capacity by reducing the fleet and by reducing days-at-sea,” he said. “But total landings have not decreased at all.” He acknowledged that putting restrictions on fishing technology may hamstring the development of the fishing trade, but believes that it may be necessary to save the fish stocks.

Another way to reform the fisheries may be to redraft how quotas are managed. Currently, EU stocks are under a shared quota system, in which each member state that borders the North Sea is guaranteed a percentage of the catch. However, there are no individual allotments for fishermen so the yearly catch frequently outstrips the allotted quotas.

Several NGOs have called for an Individual Transferable Quota approach, based on the models of Iceland and New Zealand. Environmentalists say that because this quota system gives fishermen ownership of their stocks, the method encourages responsible fishing, leading to less waste and reducing the number of excess fish taken aboard.

Scottish fishermen aside, all parties agree that the level of overfishing in European waters is unsustainable. No one can deny that the Common Fisheries Policy in serious need of revision, but exactly what its new form will look like, and how effectively it will operate, is anyone’s guess.