Since industrial fishing commenced in the 1950s, the living resources of the oceans have progressively declined. The facts are documented in a multitude of scientific papers. In 2003 the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations reviewed the status of 600 marine fish stocks world-wide and concluded that 77% were “fully” or excessively exploited while less than a quarter were “moderately or under-fished” [i].
These statistics are reflected in depressed productivity. Despite gradually improving technology and ever-greater fishing power, landings continue to run down. Capture fisheries remain the principal source of fish protein; aquaculture is gradually expanding but is also dependent on living marine resources for raw material. Fish, crustaceans and molluscs account for between 13.8 and 16.5% of animal protein consumed by the human population.[ii]
Meanwhile the human population continues to expand. When industrial fishing commenced in the 1950s it stood at some three billion. [iii] At the end of the last century it had doubled and it is due to grow by a further 50% in 2050 when a widespread collapse (a reduction by 90% or more of historic fish stock biomass) is anticipated by some [iv] though not all authorities.
The increase in numbers of humankind is not the sole explanation for the depletion of marine resources however. While fish (the term is used to include molluscs and crustaceans and other forms of marine animal life) provides one fifth of all protein for about 20% of the world’s population, its consumption by the more prosperous industrialised nations has grown disproportionately: by some 1% annually through the 1960s to the end of the century.[v] Fish is generally seen to be a healthy food option and the rich aspire to eating ever larger quantities of it.
Growing demand for fish is therefore associated with accelerating depletion of living marine resources. The expanding human population also imposes environmental stress through pollution and atmospheric change.
Associated with these developments is the concentration of wealth in fewer hands. This was the theme for the World Economic Forum which took place in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland in 2014. While national incomes have to some extent equalised throughout the world, the disparities within nations had widened dramatically and 70% of the world’s population live in countries with growing economic inequality. The conference was told that in monetary terms, some 1% of the world’s population is worth 65 times the value of the poorest 50% of the rest.[vi] The prevailing danger in these circumstances is that concentration of wealth influences political representation and there is a widespread conviction that such conditions favour the rich.
The European Union
The foregoing circumstances apply universally and their consequences are obvious in European Union policy and the way its fisheries are organised. Following its formative years, the 1970s, the European Economic Community devised a Common Fisheries Policy to manage the marine commonage. Initially an offshoot of the Common Agriculture Policy, its first concerns were market regulation and fleet modernisation, conservation being a much later add-on. Fishing matters stir protective and nationalistic instincts and negotiations on fisheries proved to be one of the most problematical of the portfolios on which agreement was sought by acceding member states. In order to obtain it, the Commission in Brussels offered substantial grant assistance to the catching and processing industries in member states. This investment exacerbated fishing pressure and eroded fish stocks and, in turn, prompted greater capitalisation to make fishing a profitable activity. When over-fishing crises made themselves known, as they quickly and increasingly did from the early years, the industry was either unwilling or unable to restrain its demand. Fish stocks could, in theory, be scientifically managed but the competitive catching sector had neither appetite, leeway nor patience to comply with scientific advice and the decline in the resource has been at least as rapid within EU waters as anywhere else.[vii]
The regulation of fisheries requires an administration with several departments: to carry out scientific assessment, to “develop” the industry (a role which is frequently – and counter-intuitively – performed by the state) and to enforce regulations. The largesse from the Commission was not distributed equally within member states but, rather, was channelled disproportionately to larger operators which aggregated into Fish Producer Organisations. This is understandable because the first role of a Common Fisheries Policy was the regulation of markets and that was the role Producer Organisations were intended to perform. There is an inevitable association between wealth and politics which is not necessarily improper but is always undesirable. Thus, larger operators effectively influenced policy formation to a greater extent than less fortunate ones and that disparity grew in keeping with the international trends discussed at Davos-Klosters. Gradually the higher echelons of the agencies, producer organisations and administration coalesced – closed ranks – to effectively form a fisheries-political establishment.
Instances within fisheries and other human endeavours, demonstrate that even when the supporting rationale for the establishment weakens and dissolves, the service itself strives to justify its existence. But something has to change and that can – but need not necessarily – be what the service provides. This website is particularly interested to examine what happens when the resource supporting the establishment deteriorates and the justification for the existence of the administration crumbles. These events are taking place but they need explanation: fisheries are technical, their underlying rationale often counter-intuitive (who could understand the mentality for wiping out the fish stocks on which the industry survives, yet there is one!) and poorly understood by the ordinary citizen. Commercial fishers continually bemoan the complexity of regulation but their complaints may not always be sincere. After all, the more complex a regulation, the more difficult it is to enforce and enforcement is notoriously lax in this industry while declining supplies of fish make law-breaking obligatory if a fisher is to stay in business.
Science has a role in the management of the Common Fisheries Policy but its advice has been ignored by an industry by turns greedy for profits and desperate for funds. The scientific management of fish stocks within the European Union is very expensive and dismally unsuccessful. Initiatives to bring about stock recovery by seasonal and area closures were not welcomed so scientists selected softer targets: poorly defined stock “recovery indicators” by some date in the future at which point the target year is pushed further back or the initiative softened further.
Despite dramatic deterioration in the supply of fish due to its shortage, the official attitude towards funding development, on the other hand, has not changed in the past 60 years. The effectiveness of development agencies is measured by the amount of money they transfer rather than by the prudence of their investments.
Central to the difficulties presented by this troubled industry is its troublesome nature which has occasionally resulted in ports being blockaded. Keeping the catching sector “on-side” is a major political motivation enabling it to exert influence out of all proportion with its economic worth. Enforcing fishing regulations has always been politically stressful and stress is something we are all advised to avoid. The establishment has found a stress free path by not enforcing very much, thus hastening the disappearance of fish stocks.
[i] http://www.fao.org/newsroom/common/ecg/1000505/en/stocks.pdf Accessed on 5 February 2015
[ii] http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/3_foodconsumption/en/index5.html Accessed on 7 February 2015
[iv] http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn10433-no-more-seafood-by-so50.html# Accessed on 7 February 2015
[v] http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/3_foodconsumption/en/index5.html Accessed on 7 February 2015
[vi] http://guardianlv.com/2014/01/world-wealth-owned-by-1-percent-of-people-on-earth/ Accessed on 5 February 2015