Urgency of Now: Reforming fisheries policy, protecting biodiversity

William Bain MP, the shadow food, farming and fisheries minister, writes on the need to reform the Common Fisheries Policy and the need to protect biodiversity.

William Bain MP (Labour, Glasgow North East) is the shadow food, farming and fisheries minister

Fish have emerged as one of the big political issues in 2011. Reform of the European fisheries policy might not sound like a natural rallying point but the excellent Fish Fight campaign has attracted more than 684,000 signatories so far calling for an end to the practice of fish discards.

I had the opportunity to attend a World Oceans Day event this week hosted by Selfridges, Client Earth and Globe on reforming Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The forum brought together politicians and campaigners, alongside EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki, to discuss a new fisheries policy aimed at giving more decisions back to local fishing communities and protecting the biodiversity of our seas and oceans.

The case for change is compelling: almost half of fish caught in the EU are discarded at the moment, both an economic and environmental waste. Last month the House of Commons unanimously supported a motion urging the government to support the most radical changes to the CFP since its inception, due to be discussed at the Fisheries Council this July.

Global fish and seafood consumption is increasing. The US consumes almost five times more fish than a century ago, and China is consuming almost five times more seafood than in the 1960s. It has been estimated that capture fisheries contribute up to $240 billion per year to global output in direct and indirect economic benefits. The UN estimates that the fishing industry supports the livelihoods of around 540 million people, or 8 per cent of the world population.

Yet concerns about biodiversity and the condition of our marine environment have grown. OCEAN2012 has estimated that half of the fish consumed in the EU comes from waters outside the EU, through distant-water fleets and a growing reliance on imports.

Labour has welcomed the use of longer-term catch quotas and supporting the stronger involvement of fishing communities in the management of quotas and fisheries waters. However, a stronger impetus is required to deal with the root cause of the scandal of discarded fish and by-catch: the delay in the introduction of an EU-wide ecosystem approach to fisheries management.

The Commission has established that 88 per cent of EU fisheries stocks are being fished beyond sustainable levels, and that 30% are near to collapse.

The introduction of ecosystem management would balance environmental, social and economic concerns and involve a range of policy changes, including:

• The introduction of financial incentives to reduce the pressure on stocks of species nearing over-exploitation;

• Further action on ocean acidification, which particularly threatens shellfish stocks;

• The regional management of fisheries waters;

• Fishing area closures;

• New technology to monitor what is being taken from the sea and landed on fishing boats; and

• More selective nets and fishing gear to reduce levels of by-catch of younger fish and other species. The multiple small trawl nets now used to catch prawns in the North Sea, for instance, have led to a 50% reduction in discarded fish.

If we want such a system of fisheries management to be successful it must involve the fishing industry in devising such schemes at a regional level and reporting on their effectiveness and compliance, together with improved monitoring of ports.

As well as a prohibition on discards at EU level, however, over-fishing must be addressed. Simply permitting all caught fish to be landed and sold without proper enforcement may lead to the catching of undersized fish, with the further depletion of fish species that could thereby emerge.

There is support across many member states for the principle of a new rights-based management of fisheries as a means of tackling overcapacity, although there is understandable hesitation about introducing a scheme of individually transferable quota rights that could see large-scale companies exert excessive dominance over domestic markets.

The window for reform is open, but may not remain so. Civic society and politicians across the EU need to comprehend the scale of the problem, put long-term interests first, and use this unprecedented opportunity to remould the CFP into a policy that can make the EU a beacon for sustainable, financially viable fisheries for the rest of the globe.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.