- On Tuesday the House of Commons opens
its annual debate on the government's fisheries policy, before ministers
of the EU member states meet in Brussels later in the week to set the coming
year's catch quotas.
- But the fish stock appears to be in serious
- The North Sea fish catch in 1953 included
an estimated 3-4,000 tuna. But it would be difficult to find a single tuna
- In the 1960s and 70s, the North Sea populations
of herring and mackerel collapsed. The mackerel never returned. The herring
did - for a time.
- By 1990 there were an estimated one million
tonnes of North Sea herring. But in five years that had fallen to a mere
- Not a bad deal
- The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was
designed to share resources among the EU member states, with special provision
for countries that had historically fished in certain areas.
- The United Kingdom came out of it fairly
well - the CFP is not weighted against the British. But it is fatally weighted
against the fish themselves.
- So the policy works against the long-term
interests of the fishermen as well, because it is helping to make sure
that the resource on which they depend will not last much longer.
- The cod - the essential partner in that
British culinary masterpiece, fish and chips - can reach two metres in
length when it is fully grown. But few cod survive now beyond adolescence.
- Most are caught before they are sexually
mature, so the breeding stock is unable to reproduce itself.
- The number of North Sea cod is barely
one third of the minimum scientists believe necessary to ensure the species'
- Technology run amok
- For haddock, saithe and whiting - all
members of the cod family - the picture is better, but not by very much.
- What any sensible fisheries policy ought
to do is find a sustainable basis for fishing - a basis that would give
the fish a chance to withstand the ever-fiercer onslaught of technology.
- In the days of sail the fish had a fighting
chance. Now, though, they have no chance at all.
- First there was steam power. Then came
larger and more powerful diesel trawlers.
- Nets have become harder for the fish
to evade, and fishing methods now include beam trawling, a system used
mainly by the Dutch, which wreaks havoc on marine life.
- It involves dragging heavy trawling gear,
attached to a spar or beam, over the seabed, destroying many of the species
which live there.
- They include shellfish, worms and starfish
- not important commercially, but an essential part of the food chain for
the fish we eat.
- And finding the shoals is easier than
ever, thanks to sonar and other electronic tools.
- The CFP's answer to this doleful catalogue
is to rely largely on imposing annual Total Allowable Catches (TACs).
- These are then divided up into individual
- Part of the problem with TACs is that
fish stubbornly refuse to swim in separate shoals. The species mix themselves
- So if you are a trawler skipper trying
to catch your share of cod, you may well find yourself inadvertently hauling
in a netful of plaice and whiting and all sorts of other species as well.
- If you have already caught your quota
of these other species, you have to dump them back over the side.
- Caught but not used
- All immature fish, smaller than the minimum
size that can legally be landed, go overboard too. It means that about
20% of the fish caught are not even brought ashore.
- In 1995, that caused the dumping of 27
million tonnes by EU boats - enough fish to supply China for a year and
- Norway, incidentally, which decided not
to become an EU member, does not operate this wasteful "by-catch"
- The CFP also tries to limit the amount
of fishing that takes place, by encouraging the decommissioning of vessels.
But it is usually the older and less effective boats that are taken out
- More than half the fish taken from the
North Sea each year (by weight) are used for making oil and fishmeal.
- Until a few years ago, Denmark was even
catching fish to fuel a power station.
- A glimmer of hope
- Fishermen are sometimes sceptical about
the scientists' claims of imminent collapse. But if the estimates are even
halfway right, the survival of many small coastal communities is doubtful.
- Greenpeace says this is a case for invoking
the precautionary principle, and an emergency recovery plan for the fish
round Britain's coasts.
- The World Wide Fund for Nature wants
subsidies used to encourage sustainable fisheries, and says fishing must
be less environmentally damaging.
- And the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
says the market must bear the main responsibility for change.
- The MP John Gummer, who was environment
secretary in the last Conservative government, chairs the MSC.
- "Member states' ministers represent
their countries' fishermen, not the fish and meanwhile the seas are being
raped," said Mr Gummer.
- "More regulation is not the answer,
because it has not worked, and it will not work. It is the market that
needs reform, because it is encouraging people to overfish.
- "Those who take the profit today
must pay the price today otherwise we are simply borrowing from our children,"
said Mr Gummer.
- He looks forward to the day when all
fish on sale is labelled as coming from a sustainable fishery. It may not
be too far away.
- The multinational Unilever company has
said already that, after 2005, it will accept for its Birds Eye brand only
fish certified by MSC standards to be from a sustainable source.