Fishing: Who gets caught?

This week the European parliament are discussing the renewal of the Common Fisheries Policy. Basically the agreement between European Union members on fishing quotas for the next years. I will not extend myself on this post, but basically the problem lays on fishing techniques, overfishing and on the quotas themselves.

Fishing is not an easy business any fisherman can tell you. In most businesses you know more or less how much you are going to produce, in agriculture you can more or less foresee how the season will by, but in the sea, its more a question of luck. You can exclude from this modern industries can and do use satellite readings.

Trawl net diagram

1. Fishing techniques: There are dozens of fishing techniques available, using hooks, nets, lines, and its many variants. But the most commonly used technique in large scale fishing, which represented 41% of all registered fishing boats in 2009, is the trawl net, by far the most efficient and the most destructive technique available. Efficient because it can capture up to 500 tonnes of fish. Destructive because  it drags on the sea floor, destroying all that is there, and it captures not only the fish that fishing company is after, but everything else it finds. Just to give you an idea of how it looks like, this net is the shape of a cone and the open end is the size of 4 football fields. A common simile used is that 13 jumbo jets could fit a trawl net. I wouldn’t fancy being there when such a net passes. For every unit of fish captured, nine times that amount of dead fish is thrown back into the sea.

Let’s do a rough estimate. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculated that 89 million tons of fish were caught in 2010. We don’t know what percentage of this fish was caught by the trawl net technique, but since this method captures much more fish than any and we have said that there was 41% of these boats, let’s put that 41% of the captures were with a trawl net (high underestimate). This means that 328 million tons of dead fish were thrown back into the sea.

What sort of business throws away 369% of its production? The sort of business that thinks the production is infinite and one can be selective. And are fishes an infinite product?

2. Overfishing: there is a growing demand for fish in this growing world. Between 2005 and 2009 fish consumption grew an average of 2,4 % every year, totalling in 2010 a staggering 120 millions tons of fish consumed. The oceans have not grown accordingly, and thus there are more mouths for the same water. Scientists which know the reproduction cycle of the different fish species and according to fish population estimates publish the recommended number of catches to be made to insure that the stock remains. Fishing techniques like  the one above contribute substantially to this problem, as well as more localised overfishing problems. Countries set fishing quotas, often higher than the recommended figure, and fishing companies exceed that as well.

3. Quotas: the quotas set by the European Union and in other places cause another problem. The small fisherman who is tied to this system and cannot jump over it like larger fishing companies, have to abide by these quotas every day. So in case one day they capture too much (fishing is not an exact science) then they have to throw the extra perfectly good fish, back into the seas, dead. They calculate that in Europe around 20% of the fish is thrown back into the sea. 5 million tons captured in 2009, that is one million ton of dead fish back into the sea.

Thus here we have three examples of too much fish being caught for what ends up on our plate and for what is enough to maintain the number of fish in the seas. Frankly the EU and other countries should start drafting policy that prohibits trawl net captures, sets realistic quotas to allow restocking of the seas, and a more flexible system for the small fishermen (i.e not a daily quota but a monthly one that once reached, the boat doesn’t need to leave port until the following month – less fish on the market especially at the end of each month? I can live with that).

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