A LONG time ago, when I was a student, my life was characterised by long summer vacations during which I had no money.
I compensated for this by doing some commercial fishing. I worked my own small boat off the south coast and, one summer, worked on a larger boat in the north east.
My strongest memory of those long ago summers is the incredible richness of our inshore waters, the sheer volume of the life they supported. Of course, this is no longer true. Today those same waters are like a desert.
There’s more than one reason for the decline. Climate change has played a part. But as cold water species like cod have moved further north warm water species such as bass have tended to replace them. There is some scientific evidence to suggest that climate change has altered the make-up of the plankton clouds around our coasts. But the main reason, by a long way, that our fish stocks have declined is mismanagement of the fisheries.
At regular intervals our fisheries’ minister and a group of his officials travel to Brussels. There they meet delegations from other countries and marine scientists. The marine scientists set out the conservation measures needed to protect stocks and a row starts. The Irish delegation wants to protect the incomes of Irish commercial fishermen and this means diluting the conservation measures.
Eventually a compromise is reached. This is where the problem lies. The scientists came into the meeting with precise, evidence-based figures. When they compromise with the politicians the end result is always less than what is required to conserve stocks. Over the years, these stocks dwindle.
So the recent findings of a think tank called The New Economics Foundation, which is based in England, come as no surprise. They analysed fisheries for haddock, herring and whiting in the Celtic Sea and off the north east coast and concluded that over-fishing in these areas is costing Irish commercial fishermen more than €13m annually.
They also explained the simple measures required to remedy the situation. You let stocks recover to their full potential by reducing catches, reducing wastage and creating sanctuary areas where fish can breed undisturbed. When this is achieved you can then double the tonnage now being landed and still have an infinitely sustainable fishery.
This report was written by economists. Their profession seems to be taking over the world. But the stupidity of our fishery management practices is not just a crime against economics, it’s also a crime against the environment.
The marine richness that I remember from my youth was a complex ecological system. Dense swarms of plankton supported small fish, which supported larger fish and flocks of sea birds, pods of whales and dolphins and so on. By systematically destroying this ecosystem we are doing far more than making an economic mistake.
And to reverse the trend by putting in a sustainable fishery management policy that would bring life back to our inshore waters wouldn’t cost anything. In fact, in the medium term it would actually make a profit. The New Economics Foundation says that the value of the catches landed from the two fisheries it examined is €12.3m a year. If they were allowed to recover that could be increased to a sustainable €25.2m. Isn’t that what they call a no-brainer?
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