'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)