A Turning Point in European Fisheries?

17th January 2011 in Media, Sustainability / Environment

Will Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall’s Fight for Fish campaign mark a turning point in the Common Fisheries Policy?

Or will the celebrity chef now move on to turn the spotlight on some other aspect of food production, leaving us pretty much where we are? In particular, what will the campaign, backed by last week’s major Channel 4 focus on fish and fishing, achieve in terms of reducing discards?

There is no doubting the man’s energy, commitment and astute approach to publicity. But the answers to those questions are not at all clear. Having marched us up to the altar of eliminating discards, where do we go from here?

Of all people, the Guardian’s TV critic hit the nail on the head. The Fight for Fish brilliantly illuminated the problem but offered precious few – in fact no – concrete solutions.

Perhaps that is fair enough. Perhaps Hugh recognises the limits to his many competences and having highlighted the irrationality and obscenity of discarding mature cod and other valuable species in a hungry world, leaves it to others to develop the solutions.

What the week of TV programmes didn’t do was give any attention to the initiatives already in place that are already successfully reducing discards. None of these represents a panacea – there are none - but they do indicate practical, tailored, solutions to particular types of discards in specific fisheries. Perhaps they weren’t mentioned because they are rather technical and not easily explained on camera. Nothing was said of:

  • Real Time Closures and other types of cod avoidance
  • The Catch Quota initiative which eliminates cod discards completely for participating vessels
  • The 50% project in the South West
  • The success of gear selectivity measures in reducing discards of juveniles, not least the use of square mesh panels in the haddock and whiting fisheries
  • The many voluntary changes to fishing patterns applied by individual skippers to avoid cod and discards as far as possible.

The programme’s main attention and indignation focused on the dumping of mature fish discarded because of the rigidities of the Common Fisheries Policy. This is probably where the Fight for Fish Campaign will have its greatest impact, not least because it is well timed to coincide with the 2011 review of the EU Cod Management Plan, the main culprit in the cod discard story.

Cod Discards

At the outset of the current Cod Management Plan, in the autumn of 2008, the College of EU Commissioners made a fateful decision which led directly to the economic, ethical and ecological disaster filmed by Hugh and his team. Faced with ICES science that pointed to a rapidly rebuilding cod stock in the North Sea, the College of Commissioners looked at the various catch options suggested by the scientists and deliberately chose one that would lead to the scale of discarding, now witnessed in graphic detail by the viewing public. The reason for this choice was that the Commissioners didn’t believe that, having recently pronounced the cod stocks near to collapse, they could sanction the large increases in the quota suggested by ICES because the general public would not understand such an apparent turnaround. The Commission may now rue that decision, as it faces criticism for the massive level of discards of mature cod seen over the last few years - and as public revulsion over the resulting discards has built.

The Commission’s cynical decision was taken to follow the most restrictive catch options in the belief that the resulting discards, out at sea and out of sight of the general public, would be easier to explain than a dramatic increase in the quota for cod.

The Fight for Fish campaign, if nothing else, has blown the lid off that particular blunder but that decision and its consequences will be revisited during the course of this year as the Cod Management Plan is reviewed: This why the Fight for Fish campaign despite its roots in our transient celebrity culture may turn out to be pivotal.

Solutions and Non-solutions

There is no single solution to discards and that is because there are different reasons why discarding takes place in different fisheries. It is fair to say however that the various rigidities of the Common Fisheries Policy, low value underutilised species and unselective gear are the main drivers. There are however many potential solutions. There are multiple initiatives, some under way, some of them mentioned above, which can significantly reduce the scale of discards.

  • Reforming the EU Cod Management Plan would reduce discards of mature cod at a stroke; the development of various types of avoidance strategy is well under way and can go much further;
  • Marketing initiatives to change public tastes towards delicious but underutilised species all have their role to play.
  • The means to more selective fishing in many cases already exist or can be found quite rapidly by skippers where the right kind of encouragement and incentives put in place. The NFFO has made suggestions on how this might be achieved through the means of sustainable fishing plans.

Blind Alleys

It is important to knock a few blind alleys on the head.

  • Some commentators have reverted to saloon bar logic: “just ban” discards. It is important however to understand that where a theoretical discard ban is in place, such as in Norway, it is the cherry on top of an entirely different approach to fisheries management – one that is adapted to the specifics of their fisheries. In Norway’s case the primary emphasis is on protection of juveniles, principally through a massive programme real time closures. This certainly works well to reduce discards, although even here there should be no illusion that discards have been entirely eliminated. But is difficult to see how a ban and the underpinning programme of large-scale RTCs could be workable in the much more complex and diverse mixed fisheries of the EU. Giving in to demands for a theoretical ban on discards would amount to posturing and would achieve roughly zero. We have already tasted this kind of knee-jerk non-solution with the 2008 ban on high-grading, as meaningless a piece of poorly thought-through reactive legislation as you are likely to find.
  • Quotas are here to stay. The reason for this is that in fisheries where stocks are shared it is necessary to distribute the fisheries resource to the different member states, to Third Countries that have access arrangements with the EU, and to different groups of fishermen and vessel operators. Despite the rigidities of the present system and of operating a quota system in mixed fisheries, no one has yet been able to suggest a more effective allocation mechanism that would deal with the realities of shared stocks. The plain fact is that we have little option but to work to make the quota system function better than it does at present as opposed to ditching it. And there is much that can be done on this front. Catch quotas are one example. More efficient quota swaps and transfer arrangements are another.
  • Replacing quotas with effort (days-at-sea) allocations, despite its superficial attractions to some, is a non-starter. Experience as well as academic economic theory confirms that effort limitation creates a perverse incentive which intensifies fishing activity during the period that the vessel is permitted to go to sea. One form of this is seen in technological innovation – what the Americans call capital stuffing. It is therefore an approach entirely counter-productive in conservation terms. Besides it lacks the precision of the quota system as an allocation mechanism.


So how has the fishing industry fared under this week’s media spotlight? Apart from the focus on discards, Arthur Potts Dawson’s trip as a deckie-learner aboard the Cornishman, a Newlyn beamer, usefully highlighted the tough working environment faced by fishermen in bringing fish to the consumers’ table. The celebrity chef boarded the vessel with the usual urban sensitivities and left the vessel with a deep respect for the skipper and crew, who would be turning around to return to sea whilst Arthur returned to his London restaurant. The highpoint was Arthur’s extreme anxieties aboard during a force 9 gale - that turned out to be force 4 - with the force 9 still to come. The crew came across as calm professionals doing a very hard job.

Time will tell. The programmes, for the most part, avoided the worst type of lazy media stereotypes; and the encouragement to try different types of fish must be considered wholly positive, even if the choices and underlying rationales were a bit wonky. Fish farming got a bashing, largely for its scale and its reliance on industrial fishing for feed species.

As we have suggested above, the main legacy of the Fight for Fish could be in its impact on the review of the EU Cod Management Plan and we should know the result of that within 12 months.