Will future generations eat fish?

Antony Mason sees the EU fisheries policy as a classic intergenerational issue

At the end of last month the TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall took his “Fish Fight” campaign to Brussels, as the first stage of rolling it out across the EU.

His target is the urgent need to reform the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), and in particular the practice of “discards”. EU regulations compel fishermen to throw back any catch that is below the minimum landing-size, or that belongs to a species for which the quota has already been exceeded, or for which they do not have an allocation. By law, they are not permitted to land it.

As a result, a shocking quantity of perfectly good fish is caught and killed, and then thrown back into the seas. In some places this is 60% of the catch. Even the EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Danaki has admitted this is unacceptable: “I consider discarding fish unethical, a waste of natural resources, and a waste of fishermen’s efforts.”

MEP Struan Stevenson, writing in the Scotsman last week, put it more strongly: “I couldn’t help wondering why the madness of discards was not stopped long ago… I have long been highlighting the criminal insanity and waste of perfectly edible fish being thrown overboard dead just to satisfy the EU’s Common fisheries Policy (CFP). Instead of being made to dump their catch, fishermen should be compelled to land everything.”

Global crisis

This fish dumping is taking place in a part of the world where some 88% of the fishing species are being overfished – that is, being fished beyond a sustainable level. Figures for the whole world are of the same order. The harvest from the world’s oceans reached a peak in 1997 and has been in decline ever since.

For the 1 billion people around the globe who rely on fish for a substantial part of their protein intake, this is a major crisis. In the West, things are heading that way: eating fish is already seen as almost a guilty luxury, palliated by promises of sustainability on the packaging.

For several decades, the world has known only too well that fish stocks are heading towards collapse, but has seemed powerless to stop it. One problem is simply that fish are effectively a common resource, free to exploit for anyone who has the commitment to go and get it.

This is the “Tragedy of the Commons”, to use the term of Garrett Hardin. His theory, introduced in 1968, argued that lots of resources are over-exploited because all the users are free to take as much as they want from them without suffering any negative consequences personally, while the loss of the resource will have to be borne by the group of users as a whole – which, in the case of fish, is more or less the whole world.

Meanwhile, as catches decrease, many governments – instead if trying to rein in their fishing fleets – are actually subsidizing them to fill the gap in diminishing viability.

Regulation to underpin sustainability requires global will and enforcement, but that is in short supply. The EU is in a relatively good position to impose fishing limits to ensure sustainability, but by the admission of just about everyone, its fishing policy has been hopelessly badly managed.

“Buffalo Bill and Wyatt Earp arguing over who should shoot the last buffalo,” is how William Waldegrave, the former UK Agriculture and Fisheries Minister, described  meetings of the CFP, according to Geoffrey Lean’s recent article in the Daily Telegraph.

To watch fishermen chucking away half their catch to conform to a policy directive is to see the road to hell paved with good intentions: this was a policy designed to enforce “Total Allowable Catch” species quotas, which were in turn introduced to protect stocks.

Generational husbandry

The oceans are a remarkable resource: unlike agriculture, they provide free self-regenerating food without any input from humans, apart from the harvesting. But they do need careful management to be sustainable.

Fish-farming is another matter, of course, and does provide a solution to the problem of dwindling supply from wild sources (albeit with quite a few negative environmental issues attached to the industry). In fact, some 50% of seafood eaten in the UK is now farmed. But that should not provide an alibi for the reckless squandering of ocean stocks.

If unsustainable fishing does continue, it is highly probable that future generations will no longer be able to count on the oceans as a reliable – let alone bountiful – source of food.

To be fair, there are signs that the EU is taking the need to reform its fishing policy seriously, and something may come of the new round of reforms due in 2012. Failure to do so could have irreparable consequences, and demonstrate a lamentable inability of current generations to safeguard a legacy for future generations.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall fully understands this intergenerational aspect: “The future of all European fish stocks is at stake, so everyone in Europe who would like their children and grandchildren to eat this great food needs to get involved.”