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Resource Management: Fishing in the EU

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Many of the world’s fishing grounds are in crisis because of overfishing. In the worst affected areas, it is feared that fish stocks may not recover for a long time, if at all. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy is a significant example of resource management, although perceptions vary widely as to its effectiveness.

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small globe iconGlobal and European fishing: the need for resource management

The global fish catch (not including aquaculture) rose from 33.8 million tons in 1960 to a peak of 95.5 million tons in 2000. However, by 2003, the world fish catch had fallen to 90.2 million tons (Figure 1).  In contrast, production from aquaculture increased from 35.5 to 42.3 million tons between 2000 and 2003.

The ‘wild catch’ per person peaked in 1998 at 17.2 kg per person. By 2003, it was down to 14.4 kg per person. Over the same time period, aquaculture production per person increased from 2.3 to 6.7 kg per person (Figure 2).

However, there are significant environmental concerns over the increase in aquaculture because of:

  • Pollution from the discharge of waste
  • The risk of infecting wild fish by diseases in stocks of farmed fish.

‘Wild catch’ production has passed its peak because many fishing grounds have been subject to overfishing. The proportion of global stocks classed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as ‘over-exploited, depleted or recovering’ stands at 25 per cent. The recovery of fish stocks is only possible through careful resource management (Figure 3) that results in the sustainable development of fishing grounds. European Union waters are one of the most overfished areas of the world. The various aspects of the Common Fisheries Policy are attempting to manage fish stocks effectively while at the same time trying to maintain a viable fishing industry within the EU.

With a production level of about 8 million tonnes, the EU is only behind China and Peru in the fishing league table. At around 100,000 vessels, the EU fleet is very substantial. The EU is also the largest importer of fish in the world – almost 60 per cent of fish consumed in the EU comes from countries outside the EU.

small globe iconThe tragedy of the commons

The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is a phrase used to explain what has happened in so many fishing grounds including European waters. Because the seas and oceans have been viewed as common areas, open to everyone, the capacity of fishing vessels operating in many areas has exceeded the amount of fish available. The result has been resource depletion. To try to solve this problem, countries have extended their territorial waters to 322 km from their shores and instigated a variety of management techniques within these waters. Outside of these limits, nations have sought to come to agreements with varying degrees of success.

Technological advance has played a major role in the overfishing problem. The impact of the modern generation of huge, high-tech fishing vessels has been so great that environmentalists have labelled them ‘the strip miners of the sea’. Electronic navigation aids such as LORAN (long-range navigation) and GPS (satellite positioning systems) have turned the planet’s waters into a grid, enabling vessels to return to within 10 m of a chosen location, namely sites where fish gather and breed. Ships can also receive satellite weather maps of water-temperature fronts, indicating where fish will be travelling. Aircraft are also sometimes used to track the movement of fish.

There is absolutely no comparison between this kind of fishing and that typical of an earlier age, prior to the 1950s. Then owner-skippers of boats no longer than 20 m, assisted by four or five crew, found fish using personal knowledge and instinct and caught them in nets no bigger than a hectare or two. Limited fuel and refrigeration, along with the impact of weather conditions, kept boats relatively close to home.

Large-scale commercial fishing can be extremely wasteful. Many fish are thrown back into the sea because they are damaged, the wrong species, too small and unable to be sold. In many cases, fish are thrown back because regulations demand it. If a vessel has a licence to catch only haddock then any other species caught in the nets must be thrown back. The rejected fish – called bycatch – amount to an estimated 27 million tonnes a year, more than 25 per cent of the total caught worldwide. Bycatch has been a major factor in the depletion of North Sea herring.

Many European fishermen operate so-called beam trawlers, whereby heavy chains are dragged over the seabed to drive fish into the nets. Such action destroys shellfish, worms, sea urchins and other bottom-dwelling creatures. The vast dead biomass has led to a rise in the populations of scavengers, ranging from seagulls to the dab. The latter is of little or no commercial value and known in the fishing industry as ‘garbage fish’.

small globe iconThe socio-economic importance of the fishing industry in the EU

Fishing is one of the main primary economic activities in the EU but, as with other primary industries, its contribution to total employment is very limited. The number of people directly employed in fishing is no more than 250,000, with the activity contributing less than 1 per cent to the GDP of the EU. However, because it supports other shore-based activities including fish processing and boat construction, the impact of fishing is greater than it might at first seem.

The industry also exhibits regional concentration so that any legal changes to the number of boats allowed to fish in designated waters or the amount of fish they are allowed to catch can have a very significant impact on communities that have traditionally relied on the industry. The general decline in importance of the fishing industry has had a similar impact to the decline of employment in mining in other regions. Often, few alternative avenues of employment have been available and a process of negative cumulative causation has ensued.

Figure 1. World map showing projected total fertility rate by 2050.
Figure 1.
World fish production, 1950–2003.
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Figure 2. World fish production per person, 1950–2003.
Figure 2.
World fish production
per person, 1950–2003.
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Figure 3. The need for resource management in fishing.
Figure 3.
The need for resource management in fishing.
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Figure 4. Small-scale fishing vessels, Co. Cork, Ireland.
Figure 4.
Small-scale fishing vessels, Co. Cork, Ireland.
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