The Great Fishing Dilemma

Article by Terry Tozer. First published in the Western Morning News in September 2008, under the title

Quota Rules Don’t Catch Out Fishermen

One of the joys of shopping in Spain is a walk around the fish section of any market. The pinnacle of this visual and gastronomic wonder is probably the Boceria in Barcelona. Here, fish of a bewildering range of sizes and types paint a unique picture of the undersea world and all without getting wet.

I have seen fish half the size of a man alongside others the equal of my little finger and the range of colours on the shellfish stalls better many an artist’s palette. Yet once the wonder of it all has been digested, it leaves me feeling uneasy. If this is repeated all over Spain and much of Europe, how long can it go on?

Fishermen enjoy a romantic station in society that few other occupations equal. Those who could once claim a special place, like miners and shipbuilders, are long gone and fishermen fear they may be next. Is there a solution to dwindling fish stocks and the conflicts of a fishing industry trying to not just survive but in some cases expand?

New EU fishing quotas are a familiar clash of interests and in July the Commission produced a draft proposal for fleet management, which split the union 50/50. Quotas are routinely created by scientists and then trashed by politicians, all fighting for their own constituent interests. There is another factor though, and it must be resolved before any system can work.

I won’t be the first person to raise the issue of rule breaking but it is so central to this problem that it is unavoidable. National stereotypes do have a basis in reality and sticking rigidly to the rules is just not in the Spanish (some say any Latin) culture. Of course British fishermen have broken the rules too but generally there has been progress in the UK with illegal catches falling.

In Spain many would make a similar claim and they may be right but I know what I see every day. Some fish on sale are so small they cannot be legal. Hake is an example. Almost a metre long when mature, they’re often sold openly as young Hake measuring 20 cm or less. Monkfish so tiny they’re too small to eat normally and are sold for soup making.

Is this a wider cultural issue or simply the fishing industry? I see many other rules broken daily, ranging from drivers ignoring red traffic lights, driving down one way streets the wrong way or talking on mobile phones are all common. Lads on motorbikes blast regularly through urban areas, whilst pedestrians cower in doorways from the ear splittingly illegal exhausts, often whilst the police look on unperturbed. Motorcycles on pavements and even using pedestrian crossings, are a frequent sight.

On TV here recently, a Spanish environmentalist complained that farmers are drilling illegal wells in southern Spain, with many going deeper than the seabed, resulting in saline contamination of the local water supply. Last week my local greengrocer told me, unprompted, that the quality of tomatoes has deteriorated due to salt contamination.

As the environmentalist pointed out, Spain is not a lawless country, “We have plenty of laws to protect us,” he said, “the problem is enforcement.” The farmers know it is illegal but drill anyway knowing nobody will pursue them. Would it really be any different over fishing quotas? I can’t say for sure but I know what I surmise.

Yet just how wrong are the Spanish to land illegally small fish and then sell them in the markets? A couple of years ago we witnessed TV news pictures of British fishermen throwing tons of Monkfish over the side because there was ban on fishing for the species. They were dead anyway, so why not use them? The waste was tragic and not only for the fish.

No Spanish housewife would waste a thing. The spectacular monkfish head and many other tiny fish are sold to go into soup. Super-fresh Mackerel, called “Barat” here, (Catalan for “cheap”) will make a delicious meal for 1 Euro. All a rare sight in Britain.

If it is impossible for fishermen to select precisely what they catch then surely we return to the issue of fishery control, rather than specific quotas. It is worth remembering that unlike farmers, fishermen only take; they put nothing into the ecosystem that supports them. In fact the reverse is true with bottom trawls damaging the sea floor environment and undersea radar skewing the odds irrevocably against the fish. Rather than controlling fish types, perhaps the answer is to control fishermen and fishing more effectively but how?

As with energy, will price do it? By limiting the vessels but allowing them to land what they like, the market would be self limiting in fish-shy Britain but I doubt that it would stop the Spanish or other Mediterranean fleets. Fresh local fish already fetches a higher price than most UK households would tolerate. Spanish women pay prices that are enough to put me off for the every day meal, yet hey buy daily and somehow feed the whole family.

In a week that saw the World Wildlife Fund launch a campaign to boycott Mediterranean Bluefin Tuna, the Spanish, French and Italians renewed pressure to restart the fishing of this endangered species. This is business and politics over science and exactly what got us to where we are now.

The Spanish say they want to expand their fishing fleets by 20% in the coming year at exactly the time that some large fisheries in the UK industry hinted at progress by applying for membership of the Marine Stewardship Council.

Perhaps here lies the answer. It should be compulsory to be a member of this or another agreed environmentally sustainable scheme in order to qualify for a licence to fish at all. Of course Euro MPs will strive to protect their member states against regulation, as in all things.

The great irony is that the controversial EU constitution and a defacto, “President,” was an attempt to create a single voice and authority and so prevent the promotion of individual national interests at the expense of the whole. As things stand, protectionist agendas continue to affect many areas of EU legislation from airline pilot’s working hours to farming.

In the case of fisheries however, it is not only profits that are at risk. Without workable controls some fish species will resolve the problem for us by simply collapsing altogether.