We live in an age of oxymorons. Firms that enable human rights abuses subscribe to a concept called “corporate social responsibility”. Governments that are browbeaten into strangling their national economies receive “rescue packages”. And here in Brussels political processes rigged in favour of private interests are accompanied by “public consultation”.
On Wednesday, the European Commission will publish a new proposal for “reforming” the Common Fisheries Policy. Like many other important initiatives these days, it has been formulated following a “consultation” exercise that has proven to be a sham.
One of the key recommendations of this proposal is that the capacity of Europe’s fishing fleet should be reduced through “market measures”. This will mean that vessels could buy and sell quotas for catching particular fish species. It is a system that will benefit owners of large vessels primarily, which explains why they are the only ones in favour of it.
For my sins, I have trawled (pun intended) my way through a slew of submissions on CFP reform that were sent to EU officials when they held a “consultation exercise” on this subject. These made clear that there was widespread opposition to the idea of tradeable quotas from ecologists and small-scale fishermen alike. Europêche, an umbrella group for the fishing industry, confessed it was divided. Some of its less affluent members feared a “privatisation of fishing rights leading to these being concentrated in the hands of powerful corporations, with the risk of small-scale coastal fisheries disappearing”, its paper stated. By contrast, the wealthier industry representatives in Europêche were sympathetic to the idea. So was the laconic Dutch Fish Product Board, which claimed that it’s “best to leave the reduction of existing overcapacity to the market”.
Daniel Bromley, a professor of applied economics at the University of Wisconsin, has argued that makers of international fisheries policy are in thrall to an “ownership fetish”. In a 2009 article for the journal Fisheries, he wrote: “In national financial affairs, the debate is cast in terms of ‘free markets’ versus government interference in the market. In fisheries policy, the debate is cast in terms of the documented failure of national governments to manage – assure the sustainability of – fish stocks versus the utopian vision of so-called ‘privatisation’ and the implied abdication of management. The advocacy of individual fishing quotas is the natural resource equivalent of economic deregulation dating back to the triumphalism of the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and it was happily announced that ‘markets had won’. In contrast to the emerging understanding in world financial affairs that ‘the market’ and its self-interested players cannot be trusted with the greater public good, quite the opposite ideology persists in fisheries policy – just leave it to the industry to bring about efficiency.”
Rather than placing its blind faith in the industry, the Commission should be pushing for legally-binding measures to reduce the capacity of the European fleet. Almost every time the future of the CFP is debated in public, an EU official will pipe up to proclaim how there are “too many boats chasing too few fish”. But that observation is simplistic and misleading as it implies that every boat is at fault, when it is the large vessels – or more accurately their rapacious owners – that have plundered fish stocks to such an extent that existence of some species is imperilled.
For much of the history of the CFP, the industry has received vast handouts in order to build new vessels that can net ever higher quantities of fish. In theory, reforms introduced to the policy in 2002 put an end to such subsidies, yet in practice they continued. Between 1994 and 2006, Spain received a cool 46% of all subsidies. The Spanish were supposed to use part of this money to reduce overfishing. Instead, it went on spanking new vessels.
Last month the Commission published a snapshot of the fishing industry for a number of EU countries. This paper said that while 66 Spanish fishing vessels with a total capacity of nearly 5,000 gigatonnes were scrapped with the aid of public subsidies in 2009, another 85 with a total capacity of 1,000 gigatonnes were built. The inference that it had trimmed capacity should be treated cautiously; Madrid supplied incomplete data to Brussels, the paper added.
One absurdity of the CFP – as revealed in a September 2010 report by the watchdog fishsubidy.org – is that the European taxpayer paid for 860 boats to be modernised and then to be scrapped between 1994 and 2006. Over half of these vessels were from Spain and France. In the case of the Spanish boat Mikel Duena Primera, there was an interval of just 17 days between funding decisions for revamping and destroying.
With the Commission itself estimating that 72% of assessed stocks in the EU’s waters are overexploited, it is surely vital that it responds with bold thinking, not by trusting the market. Fish belong to wider ecosystems; hoovering them from the oceans with wild abandon has knock-on effects for marine animals and for the complex web of nature on which the future of the humans depends. It is about time that policy-makers realised that fish require special protection, not to be treated merely as economic goods.
Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. By that measure, the officials behind this week’s blueprint for fisheries reform are certifiably bonkers.
·First published by New Europe, 11 July 2011.