Something To Think About

Frankly, it’s been pathetic reading some commentators’ attempts to engage in the MCZ debate off the back of the Fish Fight march to Westminster in February. Over three years of conspicuous absence in the debate during the run up to the march and suddenly a lurch into the fray in the final stages seemingly just because there’s a high profile campaign to go to and do what? Lobby against the designation of MCZs in the presence of 2,000 marine conservationists, the national press and some of the most powerful environmental NGOs in the country? Sounds great if you want to alienate yourself and lose any credibility you think you have – so I’ll leave that one if it’s all the same to you. The words bolt, horse, door and stable sprang to mind as comment and opinion (of a sort) on the impact of MCZs suddenly spewed forth. Thanks, but it’s all too little, too late.

Discards Ban, But what Else Gets Shelved?

In any event, the word on the street is that Fearno’s campaign to get the full suite of 127 MCZs designated will sink like a stone after the Fisheries Minister, after some warming up, finally provided some robust responses (whether we agree with them or not) about why his department is taking the position to designate a maximum of 31 in this tranche.

Still, the real back bone of Fish Fight has been the staggeringly successful campaign to end discards – strangely, something that some of the same commentators were all too keen to get behind and fully support from the outset without apparently considering what this would mean in practice.

ICES scientists have been shouting about the need to do something about discards for 20 years but in the end it took a media campaign and public pressure to force the issue onto the “To-Do List – Urgent” of the EU Fisheries Commissioner. While this looks like being a real development in the CFP it’s worth considering the impact of the time devoted to dealing with discards will have on the other areas of the CFP reform that, as a result, have been kicked into the long (sea)grass as a result.

Regionalisation was held up as one of the central pillars of a reformed CFP – aimed at reducing the top down ‘one-size-fits-all’ dictat from Brussels and allowing members states the freedom to find solutions that achieve the EU’s ultimate goals of the CFP. It has now been quietly put on the back burner with member states being given the opportunity to negotiate between themselves whether they want more regionalised management regimes. Some of the Mediterranean counties are opposed to regionalisation outright (don’t ask me why) so it could be kiboshed completely in the trialogue negotiations that are currently taking place between the EU Parliament and Council.

Unintended Consequences

Perhaps more important is the apparent lack of focus on the ‘External Dimension’ and Fisheries Partnership Agreements. These are agreements that the EU negotiates with non-EU countries to fish their surplus stocks within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in a legally regulated environment.

To understand why this is so important it’s worth recapping on the failure since the last reform to adequately deal with this issue which in the most dramatic example strayed far beyond the waters of the European Union into the Indian Ocean where it contributed to chronic overfishing, pollution and indirectly to piracy, hostage taking, armed conflict and a crisis in the global shipping industry that the World Bank estimates has cost the World economy $18b annually.

A report produced by the United Nations in 2006 described an international “free for all” along the vast coastline of Somalia which for many years prior had had no functioning government or means of enforcing any laws within its waters. This fee for all included unregulated fishing of Somalia’s rich fish stocks by foreign vessels, some of which were blatantly fishing illegally, others flying flags of convenience (thereby avoiding having to adhere to their own country’s regulations) and still more who claimed to have made agreements with local warlords and officials who’s authority to grant fishing rights to these vessels was non-existent and in contravention of the EU’s own rules.

Most of these industrialised foreign vessels far out-competed the local Somali fishermen and before long there were incidents of collisions resulting in accidents and the deaths of a number of local fishermen. The impact of these foreign vessels and the illegal dumping of toxic waste (at vastly cheaper prices than to do so legally in EU waters) was to reduce the catches available to local fishermen reliant on daily catches to feed families and support whole communities.

As a result local fishermen began to take matters into their own hands to protect their livelihoods in the face of no enforcement of the laws of the sea and an international community, including the EU, which was unable, or unwilling, to accept responsibility for their vessels. This goes to explain why many of the original ‘pirate’ gangs have names such as The National Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia –at least to begin with, that’s exactly what they were.

In time, and to compensate for a loss of their income from fishing, this progressed to hijacking foreign vessels and acquiring their catches until eventually the profit to be made from full-scale hostage taking and ransom became the method of choice for pirates who, by now, had few or no links to the vigilante fishermen desperately trying to protect their livelihoods.

The current CFP reform includes a whole suite of measures to address the shortcomings of its “External Dimensions” which include FPAs with non EU countries. The impact of European fisheries policy and enforcement (or lack of) contributing to the East African piracy epidemic is a graphic example of how important reforms to the “External Dimension” of the CFP are.

So while banning discards would be a massive shift in EU fisheries management perhaps we should hope that the ultra-high priority it has been given doesn’t come at the cost of dealing with some of the other major social and environmental impacts of the CFP – such as the convoluted circumstances that have linked men in suits in the EU’s Directorate- General For Maritime affairs And Fisheries to desperate fishermen with guns on boats in the Indian Ocean.


(It should be pointed out that the EU has always denied that EU vessels have been involved and even disputes that there is any evidence proving that piracy started as a method of combating illegal fishing by foreign, including EU, vessels. However, a whole myriad of reports and comments from other sources would suggest otherwise. It would be unfair to name the alleged perpetrators from the EU but reports suggest many of the offending vessels were tuna boats from a country beginning with ‘Sp’ and ending with ‘ain’)