Sinking Propositions

Dimitris Zannes is full of wistfulness 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,” Dimitris says, “they must listen to us, the fishermen, so that we can inform them of 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 adds: “The officials are technocrats who do not have a good idea of the true situation.”     


Dimitris is one of the main representatives of the Mediterranean Platform of Artisanal Fishermen, a grouping formed last year in response to the issuance of the draft proposals outlining the reform of the EUs Common Fisheries Policy. There are an estimated 35,000 artisanal fishermen plying the Mediterranean Sea – the Platform represents the artisanal fishermen in Spain, France, Italy and Greece – and although there is no single definition of artisanal fishermen, such fishermen share certain defining characteristics. One common streak is upbringing in coastal fishing communities, descended from a family of fishermen – traditional fishermen become fishermen because they are born in fishing families, and most of them work alone or with family. Another characteristic is the peculiar way they refer to the sea as if it’s a sentient being.  


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


He is talking about the proposed reform; the artisanal fishermen fear that the proposals are misguided, and a chance to fix the existent policy may be lost. The existent 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 fishes 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 reinvigorating fishing communities by the injection of special funds.  


Yet parts of the proposals, according to the organization Ocean 2012, may actually have the unintended effect of intensifying overfishing and the demise of coastal communities. Ocean 2012 was formed by a grouping of dozens of mostly-European NGOs seeking to speak with one voice and put up a robust campaign. And the Mediterranean artisanal fishermen, also unified under the Mediterranean Platform of Artisanal Fishermen, are in broad agreement with Ocean 2102. Both believe that the measures proposed are structurally flawed in being too prescriptive and too generic. Dimitris argues, for example, that the situation in the North Sea is different than the situation in the Mediterranean, and the fisheries policy has to have the inbuilt flexibility to tweak the solutions according to particulars of each case.  


One proposal that has generated stringent opposition is the 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. 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 fishers, 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 technical advancements are funded by EU subsidies, demonstrating the EU’s contradictory policies – on the one hand paying fishermen to quit fishing as a means to reduce catch capacity, and on the other hand paying fishermen to institute technical advancements that increase the catch capacity.  


In fact, the trading of quotas usually leads to big fishers consolidating their operations by buying out the smaller ones, and 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, and making the TFCs a mandatory measure, and forcing Member States to make their artisanal fleet work a single type of gear to be exempt 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 – appears with rhythmic 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 dismiss such ostensible safeguards as 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,” elaborates 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, catching adult fish of the target species. Then the trawlers come and scoop up all the fishes, juvenile and adult, and destroy the entire ecosystem of the seabed. So how can you say we are safeguarded by the policy when the 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 ability to process and package and refrigerate fishes in their massive holds. These vessels can spend weeks at sea, returning to port 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 the 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 social belonging through shared activities will save the 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 can be ineffective and 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 narrow focus ignores the larger picture: fish-farmed fishes are fed other fishes 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; what’s 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. In other cases, 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 fishes for which the fisher has no quota, or fishes that are juvenile or inedible – to be banned entirely, forcing fishers to land all fish they catch. The Commission believes the ban would create an incentive for the industry to improve gear, thus reducing or eliminating unwanted bycatches. This issue of a discards ban has attracted a lot of publicity in the UK due to the high-profile campaign of the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. However, Ocean 2012 prefers to see the issue as bycatch, rather than the emotionally loaded term that “discards” invokes, and prefers to frame the issue in terms of changing the dynamics against bycatch 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 bycatch.” That would be something that favours the artisanal fishermen, given that their bycatch 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 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 bycatch because our fishing methods are selective.” 


Dimitris is wary of the EU’s support for fish-farms. Says Dimitris: “Fish farms a re very destructive for the simple reason that the ‘feed’ consists of wild-caught fishes, and we are against the EUs 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 for profit. “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 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. The above article was originally published in the British magazine The Ecologist.


Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.


 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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 Victor's creative nonfiction is varied: essays & memoirs, geography & travel, tourism & environment, columns & features 

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 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

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 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

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