Who would want to be a fisherman?

It’s often said that commercial fishing is the most dangerous profession in the world, but what rarely gets a mention is just how stressful being a fisherman is.

While the super-inflated price of fuel, amid the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, is certain to impact the profitability of all fishing operations around the world, it’s the impending onset of new, tougher regulations – based upon the overhaul of the EU’s much-maligned Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – that’s really cranked up the anxiety levels in the European fishing industry.

It’s been ascertained the current process of discarding fish at sea for which there’s no remaining quota is a source of considerable embarrassment for European rule makers, and last week, European fishermen heard EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki promise to condemn discards to the history books as a key part of the CFP reforms, due to be implemented in 2013.

This was initially seen as not wholly-unexpected but positive news by many in the member states, including a large number of fishermen who it must be said don’t like throwing good fish away. But in the cold light of day there’s a growing contingent of the catching fleet that’s extremely worried by what Brussels may introduce in place of the current CFP regulations.

As Damanaki said last week, the big question is which management system should be deployed to manage fish stocks?

She suggested one possibility might be to manage European mixed fisheries with an effort system instead of quotas. Such management would be relatively simple as all catches would need to be landed, said Damanaki, and she added that control would also be easy as the time spent at sea could be controlled by vessel monitoring systems (VMS).

Another option is a catch quota system that’s paired with bycatch quotas. This more complicated approach would require all catches to be counted against catch quotas and then later against bycatch quotas.

“Whatever system is chosen in the end, whether it is effort management or catch quotas, a discard ban needs consistency in all rules of the CFP,” she said.

At the start of this year, Damanaki warned that inevitably CFP reforms would be hard on fishermen at first, but she threw them the bone that eventually there would be less bureaucracy and less decision making conducted in Brussels. There would instead, she said, be greater regionalized policy making.

But now begins fishing communities’ long, painful wait for Brussels to come up with its masterplan for outlawing discards and its strategy for implementation.

All they know at the moment is Damanaki favors a gradual approach. She has suggested starting with pelagic fisheries, and then following this with a few important demersal mixed fisheries. The list of species covered by a discard ban could then be enlarged year by year, she said.

Chalk and cheese 

It seems many in the European fleets are concerned Norway may be used as the new benchmark for EU fisheries and that the Scandinavian country’s alleged pin-up status with the commissioner, thanks in part to its history of successful co-management of key North Sea stocks, may see it influence the CFP rewrite a bit too heavily.

It’s true Norway has a well-earned reputation as a strong fishing nation. But in terms of fisheries, Norway and Europe are like chalk and cheese.

Norway has a few main species like cod and haddock that it fishes effectively, sustainably and without needing to deploy the discard process. EU member states on the other hand are pursuing many species in several mixed fisheries, some are abundant while others are not.

Many European fishermen also say that while catch quotas and CCTV cameras could reduce discards on certain species, they say it’s not possible to put cameras on every fishing vessel, nor is it viable to impose a blanket ban on the entire discarding process.  In short – one size very definitely doesn’t fit all.

But while Damanaki and her associates build, pull apart, and rebuild various models of varying complicity that use effort systems or a dual catch/bycatch quota systems, there’s one other solution to reducing discards that many fishermen would like to see given appropriate consideration but they feel it’s likely to be overlooked in the decision making process.

That solution is make total allowable catches (TACs) reflect the true health of the stocks in the fishery. Yes, to achieve this would require greater scientific research which would come at a significant price, but there’s many stakeholders that believe this is both a worthwhile and necessary step.
When quizzed on the state of certain stocks, how often has come Brussels’ response that the science isn’t there? How then, say fishermen, can they make such industry and even life-changing decisions? It’s a good argument.

The fishermen’s further worry is that following Damanaki’s proposal of a discard ban last week, there will be so much intense pressure exerted on Brussels by environmental groups and celebrity-endorsed campaigns that their own calls will go unheard.

When making her discard announcement, Damanaki said, “if we don’t tackle this problem now, it will come back to haunt us.” By the same token, it’s likely there are many fishermen across the EU member states right now promising to haunt the fisheries commissioner if the Commission gets it wrong.


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