“Fishermen only see part of what is going on in the oceans”

At a crucial moment for the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), Kris Peeters, Flemish Minister-President and minister responsible for marine fisheries, is the Chair of the European Council of fishery ministers. He wants to improve the partnership between the fishing industry and scientists, by organising an international symposium “Improved Fisheries and Science Partnerships as Policy Drivers”.

Despite the numerous initiatives with TACs (total allowable catches) and quotas, long-term management plans, etc. to encourage healthy fish stocks, there is still a long way to go. It is clear that a new, substantial reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is necessary….

In 2009 the European Commission launched its Green Paper, which set in motion a wide debate with all interested parties and the public about how the European fishing industry should be managed in the future. In the past 18 months many different themes, such as discards and selectivity, financial measures, organisation of the market, etc. have been examined in depth in a range of stakeholder seminars. In my opinion many interesting discussions have already been held in the Council and also during the Informal Council in Vigo.

During the Belgian presidency the Commission is planning to draw to a close its round of consultations over the reform. However, during the second half of 2010 there will still not be any concrete proposals on the table. These are only scheduled for the spring of 2011 during the presidency of our Hungarian colleagues.

As a contribution to the discussion surrounding the reform I would like to convene an international symposium on 9 and 10 November in Ostend during the Belgian presidency with the theme: “Improved Fisheries and Science Partnerships as Policy Drivers”. This will take place in close co-operation with the European Commission. The purpose of the symposium is to discuss an improved partnership between science and the industry in the common pursuit of sustainable fisheries.

The symposium is organised around five main themes:
1) Data collection and stock assessments in a joint venture?
2) Joint Forces to improve selectivity and reduce discards;
3) Improved integrated advisory process;
4) Communication between science and industry: the key to success?
5) Self-management: the way forward?

By discussing these themes in depth, the goal of the symposium is to learn lessons from best practices. In follow-up of the symposium, I want to discuss the outcome with the other EU ministers during the Fisheries Council in November.

The subject of the symposium has been carefully chosen. It struck me that scientists and the fishing industry frequently have a different view of the fishing industry and environmental management. This in itself is not so remarkable, since the former broadly represents the environmental pillar of sustainable development, and the latter is oriented more strongly towards the economic and the social pillars.

The result is that the fishing industry and the scientists are entangled in a heated debate over the value of the scientific data that serve as the starting point in determining the objectives of the CFP.

It is therefore my personal conviction that more trust between the interested parties is the foundation of a successful future for the CFP. The current lack of trust is undermining initiatives for long-term management of the living marine resources and the construction of a sustainable future for our fishing industry. Nevertheless both science and the industry have a key role in bringing this about:

– Scientists have steadily established more influence in the management of fishing over the years. The European Commission is basing both its annual recommendations for TACs and quotas, as well as its long-term plans, on the recommendations of ICES and STECF. For its analyses ICES compares and refers to data that have been obtained in different ways from a wide range of sources. This provides a constant “check and balance” of all data. Some information comes from the fishermen; other information from special research voyages; and yet more is backed by the fisheries authorities of the ICES Member States. After all, all European States have extensive sampling and data collection programmes to investigate catches and landings.

Last year we allowed the limits on catches to align more closely with the scientific recommendations than ever before. So I feel optimistic about the fishing policies of the future. However the increasing number of stocks whose condition is unknown or for which the scientists cannot give scientific advice for various reasons raises great concern. Figures on the state of fish stocks are sometimes revised later, which undermines their credibility with the fishermen. Moreover fishermen frequently complain that their observations do not agree with the scientists’ claims.

For marine scientists it is of course an enormous challenge to arrive at a balanced analysis. Fish stocks are only one component of an extremely complex ecosystem, in which countless factors have an effect. A small change in this system can rapidly have great effects, and seriously undermine the equilibrium. For instance, in the past overfishing of the cod stocks resulted in other stocks – lower in the food pyramid – doing much better. But external factors such as pollution, global warming, and the activities of other maritime stakeholders such as dredgers, wind farms, etc. all have their effect on the marine environment too.

Indeed scientific analyses and recommendations both for policy makers and the industry are essential if we are to gain an insight into this complicated ecosystem and develop a sustainable fishing industry.

– Fishing companies already have a wealth of practical experience.  They spend many hours at sea and have personnel and equipment that can provide a welcome complementary view to that of the scientists. At the same time partnership and understanding will certainly contribute to improving the quality and the quantity of the data. So it is vitally important that scientists make use of this expertise and what is offered by fishermen when framing their recommendations. Input from the fishing industry is still too often dismissed by the scientists as not objective. Naturally the fishermen only see part of what is really going on in the oceans. The complete significance of their experience only becomes clear when it is placed in a broader context, which takes account of the whole ecosystem. Setting it in context is another task for the scientists.

Moreover the policymakers also need the trust of the fishermen that they will implement the legislation correctly. All policies after all depend on how they are enforced. Therefore the goal – both at EU level and within the Member States – should be to try and involve the industry in the policy making.

The most successful step for involving the interested parties was the setting up of the regional advisory councils (RACs) in 2004. Their main role is to advise on strategic policy decisions. But since the RACs bring representatives from the fishing industry in contact with other interest groups, such as environmental organisations and consumers, they are ideally placed to foster mutual understanding and the exchange of information. They also function as a forum in which the fishermen can make a start on a closer partnership with scientists, and can overcome the barriers of distrust that exist between them. Therefore in my view a further strengthening of the RACs when we reform the CFP is a logical outcome.

In short, even though until recently fishermen and scientists frequently regarded one another with distrust, in recent years the distance between the two has narrowed appreciably. The experience of the fishermen can be of inestimable worth to the scientists. At the same time fishermen should understand how scientists come to their conclusions. The symposium in Oostende should be an important step in closing the gap further between the two sides, which in the end will, we hope, encourage a more sustainable fishing industry in Europe.

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