Recovery for Europe’s fisheries, or just wishful thinking?

Posted by Willie — 4 July 2012 at 11:51am - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: © David Sandison / Greenpeace

Basic first aid tells you the most important thing to do is not cause any more harm: don’t make things worse. That makes sense, of course, but if you happen upon someone lying bleeding on the pavement, simply not kicking them on the way past isn’t really a good enough reaction.

I’ve been struggling for analogies to use, ways to try and explain just what is so bad about the recent EU Council ‘agreement’ on fish stocks.  I really don’t want to bore you with MSY (Maximum Sustainable Yaaaaawn…), so how exactly can we put this in a way that makes sense to the average Joanna, or indeed, the average politician?

Seven out of ten European fish stocks are overfished. Europe’s fisheries are looked at by many marine scientists around the world as a text book explanation of how not to do it. And, despite its good record in many other areas, ‘Fisheries’ is the one subject where the EU gets a shockingly bad school report, every single time.

So the chance to change Europe’s fishing laws presents an opportunity to do better. Faced with that opportunity, and the dire state of most of our fish stocks, our ministers (that’s the elected representatives of you and I) got together and came up with this:

They want to achieve MSY by 2015 ‘where possible’, and 2020 otherwise. 

Now, the detail:  There are two sorts of MSY, bMSY stands for BIOMASS MSY, and means the level at which a stock (a population of fish species, in a given area) is big enough to be healthy and survive.

Then there’s fMSY, that’s FISHING MSY, and stands for the level of fishing (or death by fishing) on a given stock, that is bearable for that level of stock. Basically, in bank balance terms, how much interest can you safely spend? If you spend more than you earn, your savings go down, and down… Similarly, if you catch more fish than are naturally replenished, then you start to run out of fish.

It stands to reason that to have a healthy fishing industry you’d want, oh, I dunno, healthy self-sustaining fish populations? So why then do our ministers eschew the bMSY in favour of an fMSY target?

The answer of course is that bMSY would entail hard decisions, and very tough measures to limit levels of fishing. Meanwhile the fish, sadly, can’t vote, so politicians have very little truck with their pressing concerns.

fMSY on the other fin, is a less arduous target, and in effect simply means reducing fishing pressure in line with the available fish. That makes sense, and you might ask why it wasn’t already like that. But then you have to remember that crucial bit… the whole point of needing a bMSY is that the biomass of many EU fish species is not above a healthy level already.

They are already overfished. As a result of wasteful fishing methods, and too much fishing.

What our politicians have chosen is to simply ease off a bit on fishing, to (hopefully) get the fishing levels (on already overfished, and under-populated fish) down to an appropriate level. They’ve ignored the bit about actually trying to let the species recover back up to healthy levels. Too hard, that.

A target of 2020 by which to achieve this only means one guarantee - at least another 8 years worth of European overfishing!

The kicker here is that recovered fish stocks are not just good for the fish. They are good for our oceans, and the other creatures that depend on them too, as well as future fishing fleets. Healthy fish stocks are a win-win-win situation, and would deliver economic and social benefits to our coastal fishing communities.

But, as it stands our political leaders are content to bumble along at the bottom of their report card, simply promising to be a little bit less rubbish in future.

So just to chuck in one last analogy:

Our politicians are driving our very nice car, very fast, downhill. Up ahead there is a cliff. The sensible thing to do is slam on the brakes. But, by agreeing this weak approach, all they have done is taken their foot off the accelerator, closed their eyes, and prayed that they stop just in time…

Best get that first aid kit on standby.

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

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