Are we running out of fish? The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that 31% of world fish stocks are now estimated to be overexploited or depleted and need to be urgently rebuilt. Meanwhile, 50% of all fisheries globally are operating at or close to their limits, with no expected room for further expansion. Despite this, the demand for fresh fish is growing yearly, putting ever greater pressure on fish stocks.
The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is the oft-neglected cousin of the (relatively) better-known Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Whilst CAP gobbles up almost 50% of the EU’s budget, the CFP uses less than 1%. However, in terms of environmental impact, the Fisheries Policy is just as important. Supporters argue that the CFP has protected declining fish stocks from rampant overfishing, whilst critics believe it to be part of the problem. Debating Europe recently spoke with Isabella Lövin, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Swedish Green Party. Lövin is the team leader on the Fisheries Committee for the Green Group of MEPs, and has published a book on the subject.
We haven’t had many comments yet on the topic of the CFP here at Debating Europe, but the few we have received were very negative. Van Patten sent in a comment arguing that: “the CFP has contributed to arguably one of the greatest environmental catastrophes on record… it has been an unmitigated disaster, on economic and environmental grounds.” Would Lövin agree with such a negative assessment of the CFP?
Well, I’m afraid I’ll have to confirm that. In fact, it’s been a disaster on an unimaginable scale. Due to political pressure, we have been subsidising overfishing. Our boats are simply too effective at what they do, which has created political pressure to increase the quota for catches, and politicians have given in to that. They have been exceeding scientific advice by 50% on average. They are not taking responsibility for our common resource, which is the fish.
The CFP is also affecting the marine environment in a wider sense. We’re seeing more and more scientific reports published on the connections between overfishing of predatory fish from the marine ecosystems and algae blooming.
Van Patten’s argument is that things would have been better without the CFP. Is he right? Would fish stocks be in a better situation if everything was regulated at a national level instead of having an EU-wide Common Fisheries Policy?
Well, I think in many cases it would have been worse. One example is that if you look at Poland, their fisheries policy has no-doubt improved since they joined the EU. The collaboration on fisheries management in the Baltic states has improved, there’s also no doubt about that. Of course, other EU member-states would have improved their fisheries management substantially if they weren’t part of the EU.
Another comment we received on this topic came from Tim Worstall, who suggested an alternative to the CFP: “We could in fact do what has saved, as an example, the Alaskan halibut fishery: Tradeable Individual Quotas. Not dissimilar from what Norway, Iceland and the Faroes (all safely outside [the] absurd CFP) do. It works and doesn’t require bureaucrats to be pompous about it all. Who could possibly be opposed to it?“
I don’t think ITQs are a magic bullet. Nor are they the only sensible answer to fisheries management in Europe. There are, in fact, several problems associated with ITQs; the most obvious one being that you privatise a common resource. In some cases – in Iceland for instance – it’s now totally out of the possibility of public control. The quotas are now owned to a large extent by banks and investors, and not by Icelanders. They’ve become objects of speculation, more like the stock-market, which is not really desirable. In Norway it’s been more successful, but they’ve limited a lot the geographic extension of the market. You can’t sell your fishing rights to someone far away, and you can only sell to someone who has a fishing license in your own segment.
ITQs could be designed to get rid of over-capacity, but they always have to be coupled with good management measures where you set limits to how much fishing can take place. There shouldn’t be any compromise from politicians.
Is there anything that could be done by the EU that would have a positive impact on fishing stocks?
Overfishing can be curbed, and it has been in the US, Australia and New Zealand. In Norway, it’s not as evident as in EU waters… I think having multi-annual fishing management plans – which has been proposed by the Commission – is key. You should not have management on a year-to-year basis. They realised this in the US and in New Zealand and Australia, and they did something about it.
Politicians are only elected for a few years, so it’s difficult for them to think in the long-term. However, it’s critical that we put legislation in place now to make sure we improve Europe’s fisheries. Europe is not self-sufficient when it comes to fish anymore, we’re now importanting more than 60% of our fish.
This is also a matter of the EU taking responsibility globally because, since we’ve depleted our own stocks miserably, it’s not only an environmental issue at home. It’s become a question of where do we get the fish we are importing… and we get a large part from developing countries’ waters, fished in an unsustainable way. We have to get this right, because the current situation is not sustainable from any point of view.
What do YOU think? Does the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy do more harm than good? Should we revert back to individual national fishing policies, or does the CFP provide much-needed coordination between member-states? After all, fish don’t respect national borders, so should legislation? What should we do to protect Europe’s fish stocks? Let us know your thoughts in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers for their reactions.