AT THE TURN OF the century the landings of marine produce (fin and shell fish) to Ireland reached a peak and then, in the years since, tumbled. There are explanations: environmental change made a contribution but over-fishing is the principal culprit. The signs are visible wherever one seeks them: in the economic near-extinction of some species, in the landing statistics of most, in the catch logs recorded by anglers and in the reducing size of fish captured.
It is a problem that had been anticipated for years. A development agency to grow the industry was created in response to national ambition to exploit marine resources while the necessity to harvest sustainably was the rationale to undertake the scientific research required to justify decision making. Both, together with a law enforcement authority, were overseen by a civil service department reporting to a minister. The expensive administration was generously subsidised by the European Union taxpayer – not by the industry – which, from the 1970s, created a monster which rapidly raced out of control.
Overfishing was obviously occurring during the formative years of the European Economic Community but the fact was obscured by the search for fish stocks further offshore. It was not until the end of the last century that the reality of exhausted resources became undeniable. That realisation could not however stop a runaway train.
Money continues to be poured into wild capture fisheries although the industry has changed considerably over half a century. Owners of the largest vessels are the principal beneficiaries now and, because marine fisheries are a commonage, rewards to one operator are allocated at the expense of others. The owners of larger fishing boats are more prosperous and, as a result, wield greater influence and this, too, has had consequences for all of the associated agencies and the administration of the industry.
The problems of over-fishing are apparently intractable and governments are unable or unwilling to reign in the rampant catching sector. Warnings to cut fishing effort have been repeatedly ignored to the extent that they are redundant. Enforcing regulations is politically unpalatable and a less rigorous – and less effective – management regime has been adopted. In place of eternal pessimism, the nature of scientific pronouncement has softened, become less apocalyptic; now it provides public reassurance that something is being – or will be – done to rectify the continuing decline. A prime example of this reassurance is the management of fish stocks to Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) and this policy is critically examined in SCIENCE AND POLICY.
The purpose of this website is to clarify what is happening. Ireland’s case is part of a universal problem which is described in THE WIDER OCEAN– it epitomises globalisation in a very real sense. International developments have a bearing on what is occurring within the European Union and the Commission in Brussels is directly involved through funding in how the industry is organised here.
In theory, fish is available to all in society. It can be utilised as a unique source of human nutrient, a raw material input in the form of fish meals and oils, a source of chemicals as well as a recreational and tourist resource. How it should best be used should be a topic for public deliberation and democratic decision but the options are diminishing.
In keeping with global trends the ownership of fishery resources is rapidly moving away from the ordinary citizen to larger corporations and companies. The trend began with the unequal distribution of subsidy which enriched a minority who went on to capture a greater share of the resource and thus increase the democratic deficit. The central questions, to which we will return throughout will clarify how wealth is dispensed within the industry, examine the rationale for decision-taking and constantly inquire “whose fish is it anyway?”
A pinch of spice is added to this unhappy mixture by the obsessive secrecy and political cronyism for which Ireland is notorious. Transparency International in 2012 rated Ireland 25th, after Uruguay, Chile and the Bahamas in ethical business dealings while last year the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption, to which Ireland signed up, expressed a number of strong reservations about the way politicians are constrained in the release of information[i]. Thus, when it comes to describing the yield (landings) from Ireland’s marine fisheries, it is not a straightforward recital of figures. The question is tackled in THE TERRITORIAL SEA, here.
There is no logical path through the labyrinth of greed, poverty and misguided policies which connive at the destruction of marine fisheries everywhere. What better strategy then than plunging into the middle and working towards the edges?
[i] European rights body warns of “corrupt Ireland” http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/europeanrights-body-warns-of-corrupt-ireland-298902.html Accessed on 7 February 2015