EU fisheries deal - A last throw of dice for fish stocks

Some years ago, as ever more industrialised commercial fishing decimated fish population after fish population, conservationists suggested that the last generation of humans who would eat wild fish taken from our seas had been born.

This was a claim, a warning, almost beyond comprehension, but the presence of voracious super trawlers on many of the world’s oceans seemed to make it at least possible. The scale of those Goliath floating factories seemed to make nature and its great abundance an under-siege David.

One, the Annelies Ilena, formerly the Irish super trawler Atlantic Dawn, can process 350 tonnes of fish a day, carry 3,000 tonnes of fuel, and store 7,000 tonnes of catch. Our oceans, even the most generous, could not satisfy that demand on a long-term basis. The unfortunate and wasteful practice of dumping perfectly good fish — 2m tonnes a year — not covered by quota, added to the sense things were terribly out of kilter.

Though the devil is in the detail, it would be wonderful if this 10-year agreement — aimed to increase stocks by 15m tonnes by the end of decade — could reverse that self-destructive trend. It would be wonderful too if the importance of the agreement was recognised by rigorous application of the kind of supervision and sanctions that would actually make it work. Fish stocks have become so threatened — 75% of European fish stocks are over-fished compared with just 25% worldwide — that radical action was needed.

The deal may save or at least protect European stocks, but whether or not it will do anything to increase employment remains to be seen. Even under this deal, the EU fleet is far too large and must be reduced. EU fishing nations will have to cut fleet numbers to match their quotas or lose subsidies. Whether the Irish industry, which employs over 12,000 people, can find a way to expand at sea or on land under this agreement remains an open question.

However, it is unlikely that its future, or the future of any wild fish-based business, could be regarded as secure unless measures to protect stocks are introduced and honoured. Nevertheless, the agreement seems a milestone, but only time will tell if it turns the tide and restores stocks and facilitates the jobs that could flow from healthy populations with a surplus to harvest. It must be remembered though that this is an EU deal only and over-fishing is an international problem.

It is welcome too that the need to take greater cognisance of what the scientists recommend when decisions are made about fisheries has been acknowledged. Indeed, it would be an occasion for even greater optimism if Fisheries Minister Simon Coveney applied that principle to any decision he will make regarding salmon feed lots proposed for the Aran Islands rather than relying on a unique study commissioned by the project’s promoter BIM. Not only does that report go against the advice of Government scientists, it flies in the face of the vast majority of independent international studies on the subject. Mr Coveney can hardly apply one principle at EU level and then another at national level. Let us hope that the EU deal succeeds because whether we accept it or not, it is almost the last throw of the dice in the battle to safeguard the great gift of the seas’ abundance.

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