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Incoherent policies

In foreign waters

by Francisco Marí

In depth

Fish counter in a German supermarket

Fish counter in a German supermarket

Fish stocks are dwindling because too much is being caught. Some EU member states are slowing down urgently needed reforms in order to protect short-term consumer interests – to the detriment of international development. By Francisco J. Marí

Major fishing nations have not yet made good on the promise they made at the UN summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg in 2002. At the time, they pledged to base the fishing of all species on the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) by 2015. This principle would ban fishing on shrinking stocks. Properly enforced, it would mean that some species would no longer be fished at all.

The EU is currently working on such a reform, but some members want the targets to be postponed until 2020. At the same time, ocean ecologists warn that the Johannesburg resolution was not far-reaching enough. They want assessments of the impact of fishing to take account of entire ecosystems. They point out that oceans, unlike intensively used farmland, are still close to their ecological balance.

As that balance is based on natural food chains, scientists argue that overfishing does not only decimate specific species, but destroys entire marine habitats. They want fishing to be banned where sea birds and seals live as well as in protected tidal zones and mangroves.

The EU is far from taking such a stringent approach. Its member governments struggle even to pass sensible rules for fishing in EU waters. Europe’s seas are 46 % overfished. This depressing record makes it hard for Euro­peans to negotiate with countries that perform better. If the EU wants to be credible, it needs to stick to developmental principles. Outside the EU, many people consider European fishing policy a vital threat to their own interests.

The European Commission is aware of the challenge. In 2009, its Green Paper admitted that EU subsidies to European firms contributed to boosting the industry, though “not in a way to have a significant impact on the fight against poverty and the achievement of the Millenium Development Goals”. Translated from EU speak, this statement means that the subsidies did more harm than good.

Maritime “cash for clunkers”

EU subsidy policies typically do not take account of poverty in developing countries. The EU’s “cash for clunkers” campaign for ships, for instance, was not only about scrapping ships. Many vessels sailed on under another flag. European ship owners started joint ventures in developing countries like Namibia or Angola, for example, and registered old ships there.

Instead of EU tax money serving to reduce fishing capacity, moreover, the EU simply bought fishing rights outside the EU. Accordingly, the Spanish fishing fleet uses about 50 % of its capacity outside EU waters.

The EU is not entirely deaf to cri­ticism however. The European Commission’s proposals to bring the fishing industry more in line with development policy are found in two recent documents: the Communication on the External Dimension of Fisheries Policy; and a brief section in a regulatory proposal. In terms of development policy, both documents are disappointing. They merely repeat what is already international law: fish in foreign waters is only allowed if there is a surplus of fish stocks. The truth, however, is that global stocks are ­dwindling.

The European Commission wants to make it harder for European fishing vessels to sail under foreign flags and prevent them from keeping on fishing in foreign waters after the season is over. The Commission, moreover, wants partners in developing countries to ensure that EU aid earmarked for local fishing communities really reaches the parties it is meant for. On top, European experts should provide training in sustainable management, rule enforcement and the accurate assessment of fish stocks.

Neglecting the right to food

The right to food is based on Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In general, a human right has priority over the commercial interests of European ship owners. None­theless, the policy proposals from Brussels neglect it. The European Commission needs to take a stand on how civil society, independent researchers, and – above all – traditional fishing communities are supposed to contribute to safeguarding the right to food.

Another open question is how EU members should deal with breaches of the law in foreign waters, off the Senegalese coast, for example. Yet another issue is to make illegal the practice of throwing by-catch back into the sea and prosecute malfeasants. The EU could ask INTERPOL, the International Criminal Police Organisation, which is supported by 190 countries, to handle the task. INTERPOL has a unit for fighting fishery-related crime.

Germany’s Federal Government has fiercely criticised another Commission proposal, according to which fishing rights would become a tradable good. On its own, however, Germany cannot veto the idea. Tradable rights would mean that some companies could fish without competition in some coastal waters for a certain period, such as 15 years.

The World Bank is in favour of the approach, which allegedly has prevented overfishing in the USA, Australia and New Zealand. It also argues that tradable fishing rights would be an incentive to invest in more eco-friendly technology. Opponents of the idea, however, say that it would lead to the privatisation of the seas and boost speculation with food – to the detriment of artisanal fishing. (fm)