EU Fishing Debate Heats Up

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In March, I wrote about how the European Union had resolved to stop the process of legal dumping of fish in European waters. Fishing quotas set up to protect stocks from over-fishing has led European fishermen to (legally) discard portions of large catches so as to avoid coming to shore with a haul that exceeds their legal limit. The EU’s fisheries commissioner proposed a blanket-ban on the practice.

On Tuesday, she met with fishermen to discuss the proposal. The meeting did not go well.

Mike Parker, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producer’s Association, called the proposals “dictatorial” and Jon Harman, of pan-industry body Seafish UK, added that the EU was being too “prescriptive” in their proposed solution. Scottish Fisheries Federation chief executive Bertie Armstrong said: “Simply banning the practice is over-simplistic… the consequences for the industry will be unpredictable instability, with serious implications for our fragile fishing communities.”

According to The Guardian newspaper, “sections of the fishing industry and some member states have come up with an alternative proposal that would water down the commission’s plans. Under this alternative, discards would not be banned outright but would rely on fishermen signing up voluntarily.”

That solution seems unlikely. According to the website Europolitics, EU fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki recently said that “The calendar to end discards with specific end dates per fisheries has to be decided top-down. [The decision] is a political responsibility and has to be taken by the EU institutions – Commission, Council and Parliament”.

That’s a position with which most conservationists studying the issue would agree. Stocks of fish are plummeting and, simultaneously, European consumers are demanding more sustainably-sourced seafood. So clearly something has to be done–and the sad truth is that you can’t trust fishermen to police themselves. But at the same time it’s heartbreaking to watch this problem be fixed.

My mother lives in Angus, Scotland on a stretch of coast decimated by European fishing quotas. The area has seen increasing drug use, domestic abuse and mental health problems–all  effects you would expect following the disintegration of a once-proud industry. I touched on this issue several years ago in a profile of a fisherman suing his skipper for psychological trauma after a shipwreck.

Policy makers don’t talk enough about environmental justice–about how the poor carry the bulk of the burden of heavy industry and environmental degradation in the global village. But the European fishing quotas are an example of how sound environment policies–trying to do the right thing for the environment to ensure a sustainable future for us all—can also come with an agonizing human cost.