New EU fish reforms anger artisan fishermen

Fish on a fishing boat
Artisan fishermen throughout Europe are worried new E.U fishing reforms may be more of a hindrance than a help.
More than seven out of ten edible marine species in the EU are over-fished and coastal communities are dying. So you might think new draft reforms would help reverse this trend. Not so, says Victor Paul Borg, who investigates the impact of changes that the community fishermen themselves do not want

Dimitris Zannes is full of hope that bureaucrats from the EU’s Fisheries Commission will visit his island one day. “If the officials want to carry out reform of fisheries policy correctly,” he says, “they must listen to us, the fishermen, so that we can tell them about the dire situation we are in.”

Dimitris’ lament is shared by others, and in the course of my research a picture began to emerge of EU officials spinning policy projections from mathematical and financial models that are disconnected from the complexities of reality. Dimitris confirms this. “The officials are technocrats who do not have a good idea of the true situation.” 

He is one of the main representatives of the Mediterranean Platform of Artisanal Fishermen - a group which formed last year in response to draft proposals outlining the reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. There are an estimated 35,000 artisan fishermen plying the Mediterranean Sea with the Platform representing fishermen in Spain, France, Italy and Greece. And whilst there is no single definition of  ‘artisanal fishermen’, there are certain defining characteristics. One of these is an upbringing in coastal fishing communities and a descent from a family of fishermen. In other words, traditional fishermen are born, not made, and most of them work alone or with family. Another characteristic is the way they will refer to the sea as if it’s a sentient being.

Dimitris, who is now 38, took over the family’s fishery business from his father and is a typical artisanal fisherman. He fishes from a 10-metre boat and uses mainly trammel nets and hooks attached to longlines. “The EU officials need to understand why we must obey the rules of the sea,” he says. “And this where our experience is invaluable – fishing is our culture, it’s our way of life, we have a lot of experience. But nobody is listening to us. What is the point of a fisheries policy that allows the destruction of the sea anyway?”

He is talking about the proposed reform; the artisanal fishermen fear that the proposals are misguided, and that this chance to fix the existent policy may be lost. The current policy, (launched in 1983), has perversely led to overcapacity and overfishing – more than seven out of ten edible marine species in the EU are overfished and coastal communities are dying – and the reform is designed to reverse the spreading malaise. To this end, the EU Fisheries Commission got the ball rolling in the reform process by issuing draft reform proposals that rest on four main pillars: a ban on discards (ending the practice of fishermen discarding fish that are juvenile or inedible, or otherwise economically worthless), adopting a system of Transferable Fishing Concessions (the trading of catch quotas as a market mechanism to trigger innovation), achieving Maximum Sustainable Yield (fishing at sustainable levels), and the injection of special funds to reinvigorate fishing communities themselves.

It all sounds good but ironically, parts of the proposals, according to the Ocean 2012 – a campaigning group made up of dozens of mostly-European NGOs - may actually have the unintended effect of intensifying overfishing and the demise of coastal communities.

And broadly speaking, the Mediterranean artisanal fishermen agree. Both believe that one key flaw is that the proposed new measures are too prescriptive and too generic. For example, says Dimitris, the situation in the North Sea is entirely different than the situation in the Mediterranean which means any new fisheries policy should be flexible enough to be able to ‘tweak’ the solutions according to particulars of each case.

The proposal that has generated strident opposition is the notion of a system of Transferable Fishing Concessions (TFCs): the idea is to use the trading of quotas among fishermen as a smart tool that would give impetus to innovation, and reduce catch-overcapacity and overfishing. But Ian Campbell of Ocean 2012 calls this proposal “a blunt instrument for reducing the number of vessels, which is not necessarily a reduction of overcapacity within the fleet.” It’s a valid point; the EU’s own experience shows that capacity has continued to expand despite a drop in the number of fishing vessels, and that’s because large fishers have increased their capacity by technical advancements that has made their operations more effective and aggressive. The irony is that the technical equipment that has underpinned this is itself funded by EU subsidies, demonstrating the EU’s contradictory policies – on the one hand paying fishermen to quit to reduce catch capacity, and on the other hand paying fishermen to implement technical advancements that increase capacity. 

Experience suggests that the trading of quotas usually leads to big fishers consolidating their operations by buying out the smaller ones, and so the Commission is proposing to safeguard the small-scale fishers by exempting vessels of less than 12 metres from the trading of quotas. “That proposal,” says Campbell, “oversimplifies the issue of ‘small-scale’ artisanal fishermen. The 12-metre arbitrary length does not take into account a fundamental understanding of the realities of the small vessels that change gears and techniques seasonally according to target species. For example, a vessel that uses trammel nets for dover sole for a few months may also target cod using a light otter trawl and cuttlefish using traps throughout the year. This adaptability and seasonal approach is vital for the smaller fleet, but making the TFCs a mandatory measure - and thus forcing Member States to make their artisanal fleet work a single type of gear in order to qualify for exemption from TFCs - could lead to vessels under 12 metres to adapt static gear. This would make fishing less viable for the small-scale fishermen, and push them towards economic breaking point.”

The same duality – the small-scale versus the large-scale fishers – crops up with an alarming repetition throughout the proposals. In another instance, the proposals seek to safeguard the artisanal fishermen by the allocation of an undefined share of the quota for the small-scale fleet. That constitutes a kind of positive discrimination, but the fishermen are not impressed – they argue that such safeguards are superficial and irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. “The issue is not the size of the boat as such, or whether a fisher is big or small, but the fishing method,” explains Dimitris. “And the problem is that there are big companies that use destructive fishing methods, and their fishing destroys the same fishing grounds where we also go fishing.

“For example, in my area there are certain species that are caught by both trawlers and hooks. I use hooks, for example, catching adult fish of the target species. Then the trawlers come and scoop up all the fish, juvenile and adult, and destroy the entire ecosystem of the seabed. So how can you say we are safeguarded by the policy when that same policy allows the trawlers to destroy our fishing grounds?”

The Commission seems to be grappling with fisheries as if it’s something that can be controlled and managed as a closed system, like agriculture. But fishing is complex and, as Campbell rightly points out, there is no such thing as “a generic fishing industry.” Fishing has more similarities to hunting and gathering than to agriculture, and the only thing that’s ‘industrial’ about fishing is the large vessels full of technological wizardry – such as sonar equipment that helps locate shoals of fish – and the ability to process and package and refrigerate fishes in their massive holds. These vessels can spend weeks at sea, returning to port only when they are gorging on fish. 

So, instead of making meaningless distinctions between vessel sizes, Ocean 2012 is calling for a more holistic approach. The starting point should be to uphold the principle that fisheries is a public resource – not something that belongs to the fishermen – and that any proposed reform has to act concertedly to make fishing socially, environmentally and economically sustainability. In this sense, concentration of fishing rights or fishing effectiveness in the large fishers – something that may be expedited by the trading of quotas – is akin to quasi-privatisation of a common resource, and will devastate coastal fishing communities. The Commission recognises these perils, and recommends a special fund designed especially for traditional fishing communities. But fishing communities can’t be saved in a limbo, propped up by subsidies or funds – only economic vigour and a sense of belonging through shared activities will save the traditional coastal communities and their way of life.

“Instead of making simplifications of ‘large’ and ‘small’ fishers, and dealing with each in isolation,” says Campbell, “we are advocating that problems are addressed on a fishery by fishery basis. This approach does not favour one particular sector over another, but favours the environmentally lower-impact fishers over higher-impact fishers within the same fishery.”

In this sense, the strategic flop of the Commission’s proposals is in trying to fix Europe’s broken fisheries by fixing things in bits and pieces, making dual measures for small-scale and large-scale fishers – an approach that is not only ineffective but ultimately disastrous. A similar problem is the tendency to see fisheries from the narrow focus of production, something that is evident in the blind pursuit of fish-farming as an ‘industry’ that will boost supply. Such a narrow focus ignores the larger picture: fish-farmed fish are fed other fish caught from the sea, and that means that overfishing is merely displaced or shifted from one species (the grown species) to another species (the species which makes up the feed).

Worse still, fish-farming in most instances actually leads to a net loss of precious fishery resources during biomass conversion, a loss that is perhaps most acute in tuna-farming in the Mediterranean – the Mediterranean member states of the EU have a tuna-farming capacity of tens of thousands of tons, much higher than the global catch quota – where wild-caught tuna are fattened in floating cages. Tuna gobble 20-25kg of mackerel to gain just 1kg of weight – so wouldn’t it be more socially and environmentally justifiable for people to eat the mackerel directly, instead of losing precious and limited marine biomass in the conversion of 25kg of mackerel into just 1kg of tuna? That question may well be hypothetical because what’s clearly more relevant is that tuna commands impressive prices in Japan, and even though mackerel is edible and tasty and healthy, it’s more profitable for fishermen to sell the mackerel to tuna-farms than to consumers. 

“We can only accept aquaculture in cases where it is a net producer of fish protein, in order to avoid adding pressure to feed stocks,” Campbell says. “And under any reasonable definition of sustainable aquaculture, tuna penning would not qualify, not just because of the feed conversion ratios, but because of the incentive it creates to harvest juvenile tuna. The only case I am aware of where it can be argued that aquaculture actually provided such a conservation benefit is with sturgeon for caviar.  Otherwise, as is the case with salmon, aquaculture typically supplements supply with no real reduction in fishing pressure on the wild stock.”

In Dimitris’ scope of vision, fish-farming is inextricably linked to the issue of discards. The Commission proposal is for fish discards – which is the practice of discarding fish for which the fisher has no quota, or fish that are juvenile or inedible – to be banned entirely, forcing fishers to land all the fish they catch. The Commission believes the ban would create an incentive for the industry to improve gear, thus reducing or eliminating unwanted by-catches.

The issue of a discards ban has attracted a lot of publicity in the UK, mainly due to the high-profile campaign of the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. However, Ocean 2012 prefers to see the issue as by-catch, rather than use the emotionally-loaded term “discards”, and the group also prefers to frame the issue in terms of changing the dynamics against by-catch by positive rewards: the idea is to allocate the quota to the “fishers who use selective fishing methods, and gears and practices that have a low by-catch.” That would be something that favours the artisanal fishermen, given that their by-catch is limited or non-existent. Yet the Platform is against the banning of discards because of the concern that the ban will simply serve to legitimise the wastefulness of fish farming. 

“The unsalable or inedible fish will become feed for fish-farms,” Dimitris says. “So I worry that the discard ban is actually a cover for the fish-farms. There are already large fishers that sell virtually their entire catch to fish farms. We, the Platform, want to see discards eliminated, but the way to do it is through better selective gear and selective fishing. We have very little by-catch because our fishing methods are selective.”

Dimitris remains wary of the EU’s support for fish-farms. He says: “Fish farms are very destructive for the simple reason that the ‘feed’ consists of wild-caught fish, and we are against the EU’s support for the development of large fish-farms. We only support small-scale farms that will yield good quality fish, and respect the limits of sea’s resources.”

Fish-farms are mostly owned by large companies, including multi-national companies, who get into fishing solely for the short-term profits. “The big fishers are after maximum profits,” Dimitris says, “and if that means using indiscriminate and destructive fishing methods, then so be it. They can fish for five years and make a lot of money, and then quit when it’s no longer worth fishing and do another business.

“For us it’s very different: we are community fishermen, and fishing is our way of life, so our interest is being able to catch fish throughout our lifetimes. The EU must create a good control system – using education and enforcement – so that we can have good-quality fish in the market, and also fish left for our children. If the reform is carried out correctly, fishing in the Mediterranean Sea can become an economical tool for growth.”

Victor Paul Borg writes about environmental issues, adventure travel and geography for a variety of magazines. For more of his work, visit his website