Saturday, 20 November 2010

The Buzzword is Bycatch

'That which is held in common is held in the least regard.' Fiedrich Nietzsche

Fisheries have been difficult to manage in the modern age. The latest controversy to drift the British public's way is the discarding of large volumes of catch. This is not a new problem, ever since the creation of fixed quotas for fisheries there has been mass discarding. The headline the other day in the Independent examined this complex issue. Newspapers love stories like these because they highlight the shocking waste of modern society, have great celebrity tie ins (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in this case) and have stirrings of anti EU propaganda.

The idea that discarding huge numbers of dead fish, simply chucking them back in the sea, is a bad idea, is not very surprising. The key issue that I do not think has been addressed is, why do people do it? And how can we stop it? It is all very well and good signing a petition and shouting 'This must stop!', but no body seems to be offering a solution.

So why do people waste fish? I have stolen a cunning diagram to explain this:

So, fisherman go out with a big net, which catches fish of a certain size, in the North Sea these nets are mostly trawls of some kind (Beam or Otter) and these tend not to be very selective. A whole host of fish, shellfish and all sots of other sea creatures are caught. Some species will be high value and the target of the fishermen. Many other fish will be of low market value, undersized (us scientists generally consider it a bad idea to catch small baby fish before they have had a chance to make any more baby fish as this soon leads to not many more fish left) or over the available quota. These fish are thrown back. Nearly all of them in a large fishing net will be dead or dying.

So, the way I see it we have a problem that comes from two sources: the quota system and the fishing methods used.

The current quota system in the E.U. is Total Allowable Catch (TAC) this total tonnage of each species of fish is then spread out to various E.U. States. This means that they subsequently divide it amongst their fishermen. The aim of the game becomes how to I get the most bang for my buck, if I can only land 3 tonnes of herring I want the best quality freshest herring and nothing else. The fishermen do not want to be in this situation, they do not want to be throwing back perfectly good fish because the only way they can make a living is to find particular size 'golden fish'.

There are a couple of solutions to this. You could ban discarding, this would force fishermen to land everything they catch. This would result in some very poor and angry fishermen (politicians don't like this!). There is much talk of using financial incentives, reward the good guys that don't throw back fish with higher quotas or longer seasons. I think this is good in principle, but a great deal of research shows that we need to be reducing overall fishing effort if we ever want our stocks to recover.

The other side of the coin is the fishing methods used. Trawling is notoriously bad at selecting a target catch. Huge volumes of bottom dwelling life and habitat are scooped up together. The continued use of unselective trawls is a key component of this problem. Juvenile fish and endangered species are caught alongside the target species. On top of this some trawling methods destroy all of the oyster beds and cold water corals in our seas, leaving a rocky rubble that is home to crabs, worms and not much else.

The good news is there are technologies that can help, larger mesh sizes will let many fish escape. All kinds of vents, hatches and escapes have been designed and tested, many of these methods show remarkable success. If legislators want to step in, they should set incentives (and penalties too) to encourage fishermen to adopt nets with all of these bells and whistles. The uptake of these technologies in the E.U. Has been remarkably poor to date outside of Iceland and Norway.

So, what is the answer! Hugh doesn't seem to have one, he is pretty sure he wants to stop bycatch, but that is about it. I will now put on my all powerful policy hat and propose a solution based on research done by the food and agriculture organisation (FAO) of the UN and some of my own more conservation minded ideas. This is based on the following concepts:

1)We are fishing too much in Europe, the stocks are over exploited, we only have tiny minnow like fish left compared to 100 years ago. There must be effort reduction.
2)Discarding is unethical and must be reduced or eliminated
3)Sea life has inherent value, and value to non fish consumers (divers, whale watchers etc). The ocean is one of our great ecosystems and should be protected.
4)Some fishermen do a very good job. They care about the sea and work hard to play by the rules and contribute to the debate on the issue. Others are driven by short term gains, discard huge amounts and break the rules at any given chance.

Based on these ideas I propose several solutions:

1)A system of individual transferable quotas (ITQs) be introduced. ITQs give each fisherman a market share in the fishing resource. They essentially own a certain amount of catch. These can then be bought and sold or traded. They would also own a particular bycatch quota. Good fishermen who stick to the rules and use selective technology will get good value returns and be left with unused bycatch quota. If they catch more fish of high value they can trade with a mate and get more quota for a particular species. Bad fishermen, using unselective gear will use up their bycatch quota and be forced to buy it, at increasingly expensive rates from their well behaved buddies. This combines incentives and disincentives in one go.
2)Small financial incentives offered to cover the cost of uprgarding to selective and conservation minded gear. Seeing as the fishing industry makes a global net loss of several trillion a year due to incentives and support I think this is a small price to pay.
3)Total quotas on offer are reduced. We fish too much, fishermen will cry, get over it!
4)No take zones established. It is mad to think that we can fish every part of the sea at all times throughout the year. Marine protected areas will offer nurseries for shellfish, crustaceans and groundfish, rebuild habitat and offer alternative stakeholders places to enjoy unspoilt oceans.

I think that good fishermen should be rewarded. I think that people that senselessly waste our resources and damage habitat should be punished. The rules must change, there is general consensus that the TAQ system in Europe today has failed. ITQs have worked well in the US and New Zealand. They need to be set by the EU and then managed locally by member states. This solution is high input, and requires a good deal of effort on the part of scientists, managers and fishermen, but it has the potential to achieve the goals we all want; more fish, sustainable fish, less bycatch and a healthier ocean.

(This is partly my plan, but borrows data and concepts from several sources including the FAO bycatch report, work by Daniel Pauley at the University of British Columbia and Kevin Crean and David Symes at the University of Hull. If you want to see the sources and documents used just send me an email or post up)


  1. How many fishermen are there? They seem like the only problem here. Everyone else wants responsible fishing and to conserve the seas and to have tasty fish.

    Can't we just buy them out? Ban them from fishing, buy their boats and spend money retraining them. They will howl like motherfuckers but so did the dockers and the miners and the wool spinners and the farm labourers.

    If there are too many of them they need to be redeployed, in a kind and sustainable way, to professions where they can make a decent living, doing something they like (maybe at sea), living in a place they feel comfortable, it is, in the end, inevitable. It's now or when the seas are dead.

    As a practical example while fishing is declining the world wide merchant fleet continues to grow and Britain has some of the best merchant navy training facilities in the world. We could encourage the young men to become crew and officers on large ocean going tankers, transports and container ships.

    They can't just destroy the sea because they don't want to change, that's obviously the wrong path.

  2. Good article Mark, and heart-warming to see there are some steps that could be taken to mitigate this obvious problem. Like you (but apparently unlike John!), I don't think many (most?) fisherman enjoy chucking away perfectly good produce; but they are clearly constrained in their behaviour by market forces and EU and UK legislation.

    Another aspect of the issue seems to stem from the public's interest in eating only a relatively small range of fish species which, I presume, affects the diversity of the fish stock as well as its overall size. Perhaps if consumers were more aware of the less fashionable but still tasty (and often cheaper) fish (like Gurnard for example) then trawlermen would not have to be so careful in deciding what species are cost-effective for them to retain or discard.

    I know a number of high-profile chefs are starting to champion different species for eating, but it seems to be that the status-quo will not be significantly changed unless the retailers also see the value in offering a wider variety of fish to change dietary habits. This could also benefit supermarkets on a commercial basis. As well as the marketing possiblities (sustainability etc) this might afford, supermarkets would also be less reliant on a few species so would be less affected if the availability of these were to be reduced for whatever reason.

  3. Good to see some feedback here,

    Hi Jon, in the EU there are about 10750 registered fishing vessels. When you add in all of the workers employed in proccessing fish, managing the fishermen and then transport and sales you can see there are lots and lots of people involved in this industry.

    I strongly disagree that it is just the fishermen who are doing a bad job. Basically the government, even in the good days (of growth and all that) couldnt just afford to buy out the fishing industry. I do agree that we do need decomissioning and retraining schemes in place, it just isnt viable to do it in one go.

    Ben, I totally agree with you about market forces. I didnt really get into it as the above article is already a bit of a beast compared to my usual ones. There are of course shadow players at work here in the form of the consumers and corporate interests. Captain Birdseye needs to have tasty Cod to sell to consumers and the Captains stockholders need to see consistent growth. You don't get growth in a fish proccessing company if you fish less!

    I agree totally with your point about mixing up the fish we eat. There is now a big movement in the organic veg people to eat local, seasonal food. This principle applies to fisheries too, we can't expect to have cod and chips every week year round, we should have a range of fish that we can eat. So when herring are in season and our fishermen catch lots of those guys we should see more in our shops.

    Great to hear from you guys, I just hope someone in Brussels is reading my blog!

  4. Ok, so assuming there are 10 people who are employed solely to service each boat? Is that about right? (too low?) (Bearing in mind that one manager can manage many boats and one truck driver can drive many catches etc). And estimating that each one earns an average of 30k, and that you want to cut the fishing fleet in half in one go it would cost a total of

    10750 x 5 x 30000 = 1.6 billion pounds per year

    if you were to move them directly to some sort of salary matched benefits scheme, assuming that half of them can find new jobs each year, but that it cost's one years salary to pay for training, then the cost is 2.4 billion in the first year, 1.2 in the second, 0.6 in the third etc, this series converges to a total cost of

    4.8 billion pounds, if I'm not mistaken,

    compare this to an EU GDP of 14 trillion pounds, the UK budget alone is 600 billion, I imagine the total budget for EU governments with coastline is something approaching 2-300 trillion, so compared to the budgets it is, in fact, small fry!

    So it seems that it wouldn't actually be prohibitively expensive, if there really was the political will.

    Also, I'm not having a go at fishermen per se, I'm sure they're nice people, though I do think dredging the ocean floor is well weak and I like dolphins, but if there are too many we have to redeploy some.

    It's happened before in many industries and it seems, according to your own arguments, it's got to happen in this one.

  5. The thing is, the consumer demands a certain amount of fish to eat and it is up to fishermen to supply it (basically). A draconian move such as cutting the number of fisherman in half across the EU, as well as being politically impossible, would probably result in a shortage of supply. I guess more fish would be imported from elsewhere in the world: the problem wouldn't go away, it would just become someone else's. Also, the lucky half not forced out to do something else would probably be put under so much pressure to increase their trawls that they may operate even more intensively and even more unsustainably.

  6. Jon your number per boat is way too low (8-10 on a small near shore boat 50-100 on a large trawler), as Ben says the whole indusrty would be affected. This includes the packing, cleaning and proccessing industry, all the fish we eat as well as the oil based products (cosmetics, lubricants etc). This would have knock on impacts that range from tourism and leisure to heavy is as you say political suicide!

    I agree that compared to how much total avaialable money our government has it is solvable, but alas DEFRA has a pokey tiny budget, and fisheries doesn't even get the lions share compared to agriculture.

    Basically I am in agreement with Ben on the problem of cutting the number of boats. It exports the problem and would heavily incentivise the remaining fishermen to radically increase effort.

    I think effort reduction measures should include some decomissioning and retraining, and a reduction in available quotas. As fishermen see they can in total catch less and see a profitable way of getting rid of their boat then they will leave the indusrty.

    No take zones remain the best way of restoring ecosystem integrity, just a nature reserves are on land.

  7. I really don't understand, quite obviously.

    Aren't there really two different processes here, one is the demand for fish in the market place and the other is the stocks of fish in the sea.

    If the stock in the sea were infinite you could have as many fisherman as you wanted, fishing as much as they liked, only restrained by the market, the price of fish would fall and that would control the number of boats and the amount of catch. It would be best to use the cheapest method of fishing (presumably trawling) as it wouldn't matter how much damage you did as the resources are infinite.

    However on the other hand if the resources were strictly finite and the demand in the market were infinite then the number of fisherman would have to be strictly controlled by an outside force (not the market) and the price would rise to reflect the limited supply, either finitely high or infinitely high if the demand were really infinite and people were willing to pay any price.

    Overall we must be in one of these two situations, ie either there is a demand small enough that the stocks can sate it, so that prices fall low enough to limit the number of boats, thereby preserving stocks (this seems to have been the situation all the way up to before the mid 20th century).

    Or the demand is high enough that the fishermen will fish faster than is sustainable in the long term (seemingly the case now) and, as stocks dwindle, prices will rise, further incentivising more fishing. As you said the other day Mark, the most financially sensible thing to do with the whales is kill them all as soon as possible.

    So what other choice is there than outside intervention?

    I really cant see how the situation is in anything other than one of these two states, either the sea is in ruddy health and the fisherman can fish all they want or it is dying and needs protecting.

    If there are a lot of fishermen who don't want to stop as it is there livelihood then they need to be helped into finding other things to do, of course it would be best to be as non-draconian as possible (encourage with incentives rather than force) but you can't just leave it to the market to decide and you cant do nothing.

    And if you have someone who restricts supply based on the best interests of the fish (and the long term interests of people) then the price will begin to rise, this will control the demand and cause it to stabilise at a lower level. ie If fish were free I'd probably eat more, if they were a grand a kilo I'd eat less, considerably less.

    So run away demand isn't really a problem seeing as there is plenty of cheap food in the EU.

    It reminds me of a documentary I was watching about some murders committed by American soldiers returning from Iraq. The general in charge of deciding who went on tour, for how long, said that the demand was set by the pentagon and he could do nothing about that, so they tried recruiting more soldiers as fast as they could but when they couldn't get enough they extended the tours of some units and made others do more tours. This led to psychological problems in this particular, stretched, unit and most of them were on powerful anti-depressants while on tour.

    They went through some tragedies in combat (a beloved and integral sergeant was killed etc) and they came back scarred and a few of the lads killed someone in a bar on a night out.

    Why I draw this analogy is that if demand is fixed and high then you need someone who's priority is protection of supply to limit the strain on the soldiers/fish. They can't be driven by supplying the demand, it just doesn't work.

    and Ps, even if my estimates were ten times too small it still isn't financially unviable, and if you let supply fall prices (and stocks) will rise so the remaining fishing industry will generate greater profits which leads to more taxes.

  8. This is a complex problem to say the least, maybe best discussed over a beer at some point Jon!

    I think we are in basic agreement, I am afterall suggesting a greatly lowered quota and marine protected areas. All of these fall into hard interventions: Fish Less, Fish in a particular way, and Dont Fish here, here and here.

    The ITQs and decomissioning assitance are the soft stratagies. They encoruage a shift in behaviour of existing fishermen.

    If everyone can catch less and is financially punished for catching the wrong stuff, people will leave the industry.

    'If there are a lot of fishermen who don't want to stop as it is there livelihood then they need to be helped into finding other things to do, of course it would be best to be as non-draconian as possible (encourage with incentives rather than force) but you can't just leave it to the market to decide and you cant do nothing.'

    I agree with this, and the plan above doesnt do nothing, the total reduction in quota will determine how many fishermen you effectively squeeze out of the indusrty, except it is done in way by which you dont force anyone to leave their job. If you are a good fishermen (e.g. a skipper from Norway has recently been landing pollock with a 3% discard rate in an area where Pollock is just over 50% of the fish biomass, this guy is master and targets the fish with correct time, depth and gear that can only come from years of experience.) you should be rewarded, the above system will benifit guys like this and punish the indviduals that flout the rules.

    But yeah, quota reduction is essentially the same measure as booting people out, but it goes down a little bit easier! So I dont think we disagree all that much.