Sustainable fishing - quotas and a way of life

Fish quotas have always been controversial. Fishermen up and down the country are reporting increases in cod in the North Sea and feel that this should filter through to higher quota levels. However, cod stocks are still at a very low level.

Britain is still one of the countries which respects the rules. It has always been the case that certain countries have constantly ignored the quotas. Four out of every five violations are carried out in just four EU countries - Spain,Italy,Portugal and France. Fewer than one percent of all boats are searched at sea. In Britain just one boat in sixty is violating the quota system. Whilst in southern Europe its over one in every four boats.

What has never been accepted is that whatever happens jobs have to be lost each and every year in the fishing industry. The improvements in technology are at the heart of the industries problems. In all other industries technology improvements are welcomed and make the industries healthy and efficient. Yet with fishing improvements in technology strain the fish stocks.

At one time you could walk from one end of Scarborough Harbour to the other walking over the boat decks during the herring season. Now trawlers are so efficient and methods so good that the vast fleets of trawlers are now replaced by a handful of boats.

At the heart of the problem is that fishermen enjoy their way of life. Fishing has always been a hard and gruelling job but it is extremely rewarding. Fishermen, like farmers, work long hours yet would not swap their way of life for anything. Whatever happens with quotas jobs have to be lost. If quotas go down jobs will be lost. If quotas go up then jobs still have to be lost. This is a bitter pill to swallow.

Part of the problem is the number of fish thrown overboard. Up and down the North Sea cod are being caught in increasing numbers and been discarded. Cod tend to be caught when trawlers are fishing for something else. Experiments have been carried out with eliminator nets which allow cod to escape.

But the relentless pressure to have fewer and fewer boats and for jobs to go remains. Part of the problem is that smaller boats cannot afford high levels of quota. They therefore end up throwing overboard dead fish. Fewer, more efficient trawlers with eliminator nets and increased monitoring would help push the industry forward to a new more sustainable level. Yet, these smaller and less efficient boats are the very heart of the industry. They are least likely to want to give up their way of life.

The EU quota system is occasionally quite mad. There is a tendency for quotas to be lost if they are not met. Newlyn fishermen are in danger of having the Dover Soul quota cut simply because they have not met this. Yet in most cases the politicians are not showing the leadership necessary in order to take the fishing industry to a new sustainable level. The Spanish in particular are allowing the pressure from their fishing industries to make decisions which are bad for the industry. The Spanish continue to subsidize shipbuilding.

Everyone knows what has to be done. Fishermen probably accept the scientific evidence. Yet this relentless drive towards fewer boats and jobs is hard to accept. Going to sea is ingrained in many of the smaller communities up and down the coast.


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