How fishing became a killer issue

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There has long been an argument over the EU's role in the fishing industry, exemplified by Nigel Farage's flotilla down the River Thames. But whose side should socialists take in an industry that has serious environmental consequences? Sarah Ensor explains the real economic dynamics at sea

When Nigel Farage sailed up the River Thames in a flotilla in the run-up to the EU referendum, he was tapping into a deep vein of bitterness in Britain’s fishing industry. The flotilla was part of the Fishing for Leave campaign which demanded “the restoration of our waters to national control”. They wanted to “highlight the indignities and devastation wrought to the UK fishing industry by the fatally flawed Common Fisheries Policy”.

The campaign wanted to restore Britain’s territorial waters to 200 nautical miles (nm) from the coast, or to mid-line boundaries where there isn’t 200 nm, such as between Britain and France in the Channel. The organisers argue that, “we have the stocks, the skill, the knowledge, the boats, the infrastructure and the commitment for this industry to flourish for the benefit of future generations.”

Whatever Farage’s relationship may be to millionaire trawler owners, the reality for most commercial fishers, some of whom are women, in Britain is a hard, uncertain life on small boats with rising costs and falling quotas. Some 96 percent of the boats in the UK fishing fleet are less than 24 metres long and the number of boats working has dropped by 26 percent since 1996. And there are now only around 12,000 fishers in the UK, down from nearly 29,000 in 1960.

The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is blamed for thousands of small boats, their owners and crews being driven out of the industry while Britain imports hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fish every year. This is exacerbated by dwindling fish stocks in habitats under pressure from the effects of climate change.

Fisheries policies since the 1970s have been designed to consolidate capital in commercial fishing to maximise the accumulation of surplus value. Fishing was simply not profitable enough for capitalists who saw a highly mechanised fleet of giant trawlers as part of the solution.

The EU’s forerunner, the European Economic Community, and its member states introduced a quota system that was supposed to maximise efficiency and preserve fish stocks by limiting when and how much of certain species could be caught. Quotas were allocated by the government of each member state on a sliding scale based on what each boat had caught in the previous seasons.

The largest quotas went to the largest and most successful boats and each quota became transferable — a commodity in itself, which meant that smaller boats unable to compete against trawlers could sell their quota.

In the fishing industry EU grants go to individuals, businesses and local government. The amounts given start at a few hundred pounds for safety equipment, training and repairs. Tens of thousands of pounds are given out to replace old engines and decommission boats and hundreds of thousands go to develop shellfish farms and smokeries. Then millions of pounds are granted to spend on rebuilding and refurbishing fish quays and landing areas.

The latest scheme is the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), which in England has a budget of €92.1 million. This money is meant to help fishers in the transition to sustainable fishing, support coastal communities to diversify their economies, finance projects that create new jobs and improve the quality of life along European coasts.

This all sounds progressive and supportive, but the funding system mirrors the process of centralisation of quotas to maximise economies of scale and efficiency. So owners with several trawlers are not only best placed to maximise the funding opportunities for new equipment and to decommission outdated boats but they also benefit most from EU funding for refurbishment of harbours and rebuilt fish landing quays.

The owners of many small and unprofitable vessels are left desperate to keep up, with not enough money for maintenance and eventually some will be lost at sea, along with their crews. Commercial fishing remains the most dangerous occupation and at least six men have died so far this year in British fisheries. The fisheries associations that represent fishers are generally controlled by people who own multiple vessels — business owners with an interest in exploiting their crew. Dues are based on a percentage of profit and crew members have no one to represent them.

Many fishers also take a dim view of environmentalists and marine protected areas because conservation of fish stocks is almost always used to undermine their livelihoods. Greenpeace argues that a further problem of the quotas is that they are in too few hands. It would probably be much better for fishers and the environment to limit the size of boats but there also needs to be proper funding for maintenance of boats and the latest safety equipment and training to use it.

A recent article on the influential Conservative Home website argues that trawler owners are the people best qualified to set quotas as they have the most interest in preserving fish stocks. But trawler owners are capitalists who own the means of production and who must accumulate to compete with other owners and therefore must get as much fish as they can to maximise profit. They will always say there is plenty of this or that species until the next fish stock collapse. The people with the most to gain in the short term from stripping the oceans are the last people who should have the power to do so.

Overfishing is not a recent phenomena. The British Fisheries Society bought land at Ullapool in North West Scotland to develop a herring curing station in 1788. Merchants Robert Melville and James Miller quickly built a pier, store houses, sheds and houses, and soon there were 150 ships in Loch Broom at any time ready to buy the herring.

An 1886 guide book to the area noted that for one merchant the herring, “were so plentiful that he could not cure them all, so he made middens [rubbish heaps] of them and he also boiled quantities for the oil from them. After that season Loch Broom was 19 years without a hundred herring in it and the fishing never recovered to this day.”

The destruction wrought by industrialised commercial fishing in Britain has been generalised by the process of consolidation of capital and development grants. It has taken many species to the brink of extinction — since the mid-1980s populations of marine vertebrates including cod, haddock tuna and salmon have declined by 49 percent. And a quarter of shark, ray and skate species are now threatened by extinction, mostly due to overfishing and environmental degradation.

Half the fish consumed globally is no longer caught wild, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Most of the world’s aquaculture is based in China and Asia, and China alone was responsible for 60 percent of global production in 2014. Fish farms in British waters are a very small part of the total but the EU is keen to support aquaculture as a sustainable alternative to wild fish. Fish farms are promoted as a way to ensure food security for billions of people who rely on fish as their major source of protein.

Many more fish farms will be developed around Britain’s coasts and in lakes but they are not harmless to the environment or wild fish. Currently, five to ten kilos of “unattractive” — that is small, bony or currently unfashionable — fish are scooped out of the wild as feed to produce one kilo of farmed salmon. Most of the feed species are considered to be of low value to the market but they are essential to the integrity of the biosphere. We cannot be sure what havoc is being caused by the destruction of these species but we can be sure they will be hunted towards extinction as long as farmed salmon is profitable.

There are other direct threats to wild salmon from farmed salmon, such as fish farms being potential concentrations of disease. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea reported this year on the potential impact of escaped farmed salmon on wild populations, which matters because very large numbers of salmon escape from fish farms each year. Farmed salmon are domesticated and are not as fit as wild salmon to survive outside the farm.

Farm escapees have been spotted in rivers in all regions where farming occurs and in some rivers, in some years, they comprise up to half of the spawning population. The farmed salmon are much less successful than wild ones at spawning but many wild salmon populations in salmon farming areas show the widespread influx of genes from farmed salmon. This process can reduce the ability of the young salmon to survive. Wild salmon may also find that they now have to compete with the farmed salmon and their offspring for territory and food in a river.

The crisis in the British fishing industry is so sharp now because of a convergence between the policies of the EU and its forerunners with pressure on fish stocks from environmental factors. These effects include ocean acidification caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide, which make it more difficult for organisms such as shellfish, crabs, lobsters and corals to build calcium carbonate shells. This reduces their numbers and, in the case of corals, destroys the habitat many species need to thrive.

On top of this, the warming climate is creating more frequent, extreme, unpredictable weather, making fishing even more dangerous than usual.

To allow fish stocks to recover properly some species will need to be left unfished for years. This does not just threaten the livelihood of fishers but the handing on of skills. In Britain, fishers go to sea early, often in their teens. The government could provide properly paid apprenticeships and training to all young people wanting to go to sea, and a tightly regulated number of fishing boats could keep skills alive. If such policies created unemployment in fishing and coastal communities — as EU policies do now — then thousands of people could be redeployed in the building of the huge offshore wind and wave projects that we desperately need to meet targets set at the Paris 2015 climate talks for cutting emissions.

Projects like these will be needed soon if we are to have any chance of keeping the world from warming beyond the internationally agreed limit of two degrees centigrade above mean pre-industrial temperatures. But ordinary fishers and their communities, many of whom experience the effects of climate change and environmental degradation every day, are the people most likely to be open to the rational management of fish stocks. This is how we could solve many of the problems of the fishing industry, the fishers and their communities and ensure the future food security of the hundreds of millions who rely on fish.