“Overfishing continues to be the greatest threat to fish stocks and marine biodiversity today”

Will the outcome of the COP 10-meeting on biodiversity in Japan matter when it comes to fisheries decisions? Tony Long, Director of the WWF European Policy Office, hopes that COP 10 is not all about “talking the talk”, but avoiding to “walk the walk”. Bluefin tuna quotas and the reform of Common fisheries policy will be the tests of the commitments taken.

Within a month we will see a country that has systematically thwarted efforts to save bluefin tuna from collapse host an international conference on biodiversity and join the yearly negotiations over tuna catch quota in Paris. The notion of international summits is seldom devoid of irony…

…First up is the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, also known as CBD COP10, in Nagoya, Japan. A highlight in this International Year of Biodiversity. Since biodiversity loss has by no means been halted, the 193 parties will hopefully commit to step up their efforts to protect life on our planet. Shortly after the conference dust will have settled in Nagoya, a third or so of the same countries will pull up a chair at this year’s meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or ICCAT, in Paris. Unconnected as these events may seem, Paris may well be the first real test of whether ‘the parties’, including the European Union and Japan, are prepared to do the right thing to save Atlantic bluefin tuna from extinction, an iconic illustration of the ongoing loss of biodiversity in our seas.

Will Japan be true to its promise, after resisting a trade ban of Atlantic bluefin tuna at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) earlier this year, to agree to stringent measures for halting the depletion of bluefin tuna? Will Europe’s position be solid enough to accept a halving of its total allowable catch (TAC) and a payback penalty for overfishing, leaving a major tuna fishing country like France with no catch quota at all for its industrial fleet in 2011?

Are these conferences and commitments all about ‘talking the talk’ but avoiding to ‘walk the walk’? We will soon find out. And not just at ICCAT. Even if the growing outrage over the depletion of bluefin tuna is welcome, it is somehow regrettable that other diminished stocks of cod, herring and whiting in European waters share less in the concern. As large, long-lived predators like tuna and cod have become depleted, fishing fleets have increasingly turned to smaller, shorter-lived species further down the food chain, like sardines and krill. This ‘fishing down the food chain’ is threatening the balance of entire marine ecosystems.

According to the European Commission, 72% of EU fish stocks are now overfished and 59% are at a high risk of depletion. Yet, the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which was designed in 1983 and periodically reformed to achieve a thriving and sustainable European fishing industry without damage to the marine environment has largely failed to halt the decline. The total EU fleet is twice to three times too big, and up to 60% of fish caught by trawlers is discarded. I am shocked to learn that while we are faced with a global collapse of all fished species by mid-21st century, fish continue to be wasted on such a large scale, discarded, ground to fishmeal or even destroyed under an EU funded ‘withdrawal system’? Overfishing, bad management and deficient governance continue to be the greatest threat to fish stocks and marine biodiversity today.

EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki, who seems to be dithering over whether to unveil her reform plans at a Council of Fisheries Ministers in November, is otherwise sending strong signals that science and environmental concerns will be at the heart of the new CFP. Her principled stance has been met with opposition and skepticism in certain member states. But is Commissioner Damanaki not right when pointing out that by failing to overhaul the current system, there will be no fish left and therefore nothing left to negotiate about? The time is now to accept the short-term economic pain of significant catch reductions for future long-term benefits; to put an end to the short-sighted scramble for fish and acknowledge that if it weren’t for the harmful subsidies such as fuel subsidies or vessel construction, much of the European catching sector would have gone out of business long ago. According to Eurostat, landings in the EU have declined by one-third in the last decade alone.

On the bright side, a better future for fish and fishermen is possible. It seems to puzzle many a decision-maker and parts of the fishing industry that decreased fishing in the short-term can actually lead to more profits and stabilise jobs in the long-term. EU stocks could recover within 15 years, delivering net benefits of €10 billion thereafter and creating jobs in processing to make up for lost jobs in the catching sector. To increase fish catches, the so-called ‘biocapacity’ of fisheries needs to be increased. At the fisheries management level, this means keeping sufficiently high numbers of mature fish alive so that they can spawn. This is indispensable as one-third of European fish stocks are now so heavily overfished that they risk losing their reproductive capacity. At the ecosystem level it means improving and conserving marine habitats by establishing protected areas, limiting coastal pollution and curbing carbon dioxide emissions. It comes as no surprise that catches in the vicinity of marine protected areas or offshore windfarms with their ‘no-go zones’ are far higher than further away. This is why heads of state and government meeting at CBD in Nagoya should really commit to accelerating their efforts to protect more marine ecoregions.

At the European level it is heartening to see that the Parliament’s Environment Committee, representing EU citizens’ concerns and interests, considers fisheries to be a priority. It has only recently approved a report in which MEPs stress that “halting biodiversity loss constitutes the absolute minimum level of ambition to be realised by 2020” and call on the Commission to ensure that biodiversity is further mainstreamed into other EU policy areas such as fisheries. The Commission, for its part, is in the process of reviewing its biodversity strategy plan, with conservation of biodiversity in the fisheries sector as one of the priorities. At member state level, each country is legally bound under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive to adopt fisheries management measures that will allow fish stocks to recover by 2020. But how much political will is there in these times of a double dip recession threat?

From an environmental point of view, there is no contest, their time is up – if we want to save fish then now is the time. Economically, there’s no denying that overfishing represents a death sentence for fish and fishing industry alike.

This explains why WWF has been joined in its call for sustainable fisheries by an alliance of major retailers, cooperatives and processors in Europe. Two of Europe’s major foodstuffs retailers, Marks & Spencer and EDEKA, want a robust CFP reform since their business plans depend on sustainable fish stocks and a marine environment capable of supporting these. Findus, another leading food manufacturer and member of WWF’s industry alliance, is convinced that input from regional stakeholders will ensure stronger partnerships for developing and implementing those plans. There should indeed be an end to the annual TAC & Quota madness, the perpetual haggling over which country gets to catch what. At WWF we are convinced that sustainable fishing can be achieved in Europe by making long term management plans mandatory for all EU fisheries by 2015. Brussels would provide agreed standards for fisheries but the plans themselves would be developed regionally with the input of stakeholders.

As consumers grow more aware of the importance of buying sustainable seafood, Europe must live up to its rhetoric and the ambition to be a worldwide champion in halting biodiversity loss. If we cannot save the fish in our own waters and from our own boats, we’re in deep trouble indeed!

Personal facts

Name: Tony Long
Position: Director, WWF European Policy Office, the Brussels-based policy and advocacy  office of the World Wide Fund for Nature (also known as World Wildlife Fund) to the European Union institutions.
Family: Happily and contentedly single with two wonderful daughters from a previous marriage.
Other: The simple life. No car just two good bicycles, one for town the other for touring.  And a signed up member and infrequent user of the wonderful Belgian ‘Cambio’ car share scheme.

What are you reading at the moment?
“Pandora’s Seed – The Unforseen Costs of Civilisation,” by Spencer Wells. In a similar vein to Jarek Diamond’s “Collapse”,  Pandora’s Seed is a short-hand history of the last 10.000 years.  In a nutshell, we have spent these ten millennia bending the planet to fit and satisfy our needs. The prognosis going forward for the next 500 years is that we can’t continue like this – we are already running into limits.  The message is we need to bend ourselves and our economies and societies to fit the planet, not the other way around.

What is your strongest memory of fish?
Well, coming from an island nation every holiday was spent at the seaside and every summer there was the ritual of slinging a hook and a bit of bait over the end of the pier waiting for the big one.  Never came of course – just lucky to catch a crab or two.  But with a strong family connection to the Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea (my father is Manx), I remember going out with my uncles in small boats catching cod on long lines. What a marvellous experience. And within hours they were fried in butter and served with new potatoes and fresh
parsley – surely the highest gastronomic treat imaginable!

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