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Plenty more fish in the sea?

Civitas, 21 January 2011

The unglamorous subject of fisheries policy has been given a publicity makeover thanks to TV Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Fish Fight’ campaign.  Championing reform in the fishing industry and specifically the waste caused by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) quotas, the family-friendly face of Hugh brings the necessity of CFP reform to a new audience.


Scenes of indignant fishermen being forced to ‘discard’ perfectly good dead fish back into the sea to meet EU quotas have moved the momentum for change up a gear. As The Independent points out, “While campaigners have been warning about wasteful trawling for years, the images from Hugh’s Fish Fight depicted the reality stronger than any number of academic papers, quango websites or newspaper articles about ‘discards’.”  Hugh’s ‘Fish Fight’ website includes a letter to the Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Maria Damanaki, calling for CFP reform to get rid of discards. The campaign is gathering support fast.

Whilst Hugh is out to revamp the EU’s CFP (encouraging reform that will promote real sustainability whilst battling to change consumer attitudes in the UK) Iceland is firmly out of favour with the EU for its unsustainable fishing practices. Since Iceland began its formal EU membership bid in June 2010 its fisheries policy and, in particular, its mackerel quotas have been a potential sticking point that could see their accession progress undone.  The Nordic country’s refusal to compromise on its extremely high mackerel catch has been raising hackles across the EU. Changes in mackerel migratory patterns over the last few years (explained by warmer sea temperatures) have led to much higher levels of the fish stock  moving through Icelandic fishing waters. Consequently, Iceland has been able to up and up its mackerel fishing quota, so that it is completely out of kilter with that of the EU, to a level that has been widen widely criticised as unsustainable.

Last year, Iceland, which has a total population of just over 300,000, set its mackerel catch quota at 130,000 tonnes, well over the EU’s suggested limit for the country. For 2011, The EU and Norway agreed a total allowable catch (TAC) of 646,000 tonnes of mackerel as sustainable, but after the negotiations with Iceland broke down in December, Iceland decided to go it alone, setting an independent TAC at 147,000 tonnes of mackerel.  Equally damaging, it seems the Faroe Islands are following suit (they set the TAC at 85,000 tonnes last year). This takes the exploitation of the mackerel fish stock by the EU, Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands above a sustainable level.

For Scotland, mackerel is the most valuable fishing stock. They have nursed the stock and stuck to the EU’s lowered quotas to ensure its viability, and now the Scottish fishermen are enraged at the apparent selfish attitude of the Icelandic government that could potentially undo their hard work.

Last December, Maria Damanaki pledged that the EU would discuss sanctions in light of Iceland’s non-compliance with EU fishing rules. Come January these sanctions are on the way, with the European Commission formerly notifying the European Economic Area (EEA) (the 27 EU member states plus Norway, Lichtenstein and Iceland) that Icelandic fishing vessels will no longer be allowed to land their catch in EU fishing ports.

The announcement has been met with some satisfaction in Scotland. Scottish MEP Straun Stevenson, who is also the Senior Vice President of the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee and has been intimately involved in the EU’s battle to reduce Iceland’s inflated mackerel quota, said on his website:

“Scottish fishermen are rightly outraged that a stock they have worked hard over many years to manage sustainably is being ruthlessly plundered by Iceland and the Faroe Islands as it migrates through their waters.

“Since no one party ‘owns’ this migratory stock, there is all the more need for a workable agreement among coastal states – not the smash and grab tactics these Viking raiders have employed.

Maria Damanaki has shown that she is good to her word and more than a match for them.”

However, Iceland appears unfazed by the turn of events, and has implied that the latest EU decision is symbolic rather than sound, as it will have little effect on their fleets. But, if the sanctions don’t alter Iceland’s mackerel course at all, there can be little doubt that the ‘mackerel wars’ will have repercussions on the other areas of their EU membership bid. It is this ‘carrot’ of joining the EU which may in turn prove the EU’s real bargaining chip in reaching mackerel consensus.

The Commissioner’s ‘get tough’ response to Iceland’s fishing practices is exactly what Hugh wants to see with CFP reform. There is good reason for managing fish stocks responsibly, but whilst the EU’s current quota system might be aimed at sustainability, it is failing. If EU and non-EU states are unable to agree on who gets what and how much and, as Hugh points out, if quotas are followed but there are huge quantities of ‘discards’ , then the side effects of the current CFP will offset any potential environmental benefits. Hugh’s drive in public awareness, coupled with Iceland and Scotland’s ‘mackerel wars’, is a sure way of keeping the heat on EU ministers; with CFP firmly back on the discussion table, hopefully this will be enough to encourage meaningful reforms over the coming year.

4 comments on “Plenty more fish in the sea?”

  1. This follows a recent decision by Iceland to claim a quota of 130 000 tonnes.Previously the Coastal States grouping which includes the EU Iceland Faroe Islands represented by Denmark Norway and the Russian Federation has agreed a TAC based upon ICES advice and then set quotas for each state with an entitlement. As a result there are disputes as to entitlements and the allocation process is in abeyance.The EU Commission has stated that the claims by Iceland and Faroe were in clear contradiction with the avowed objective of sustainable fisheries and could result in the collapse of the stock. In the absence of a formal management regime Iceland claims to be acting legally in setting a quota within its own EEZ.Philip MacMullen Head of Environmental Responsibility at Seafish said The UK has a long history of fishing pelagic stocks such as mackerel and herring and a very strong interest in the responsible management of these species. Given our understanding of the possible long-term changes in their distribution it s essential that Regional Fishery Management Organisations are flexible enough to accommodate the movements of these highly migratory fish.


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