Saving cod and red herrings

EU-serf, an EU-sceptic blog, wrote on 8 December:

In a desperate effort to undo some of the damage wrought by the stupidity of the Common Fisheries Policy, a complete ban on fishing in some parts of the North Sea is being proposed.

Unfortunately he is right: the Common Fisheries Policy is such a disaster that drastic measures like these have now become a necessity. I also agree with what I think is the basic idea of his post, namely that our best chance of returning to sustainable fish stocks lies in combining the ownership of fishing rights with responsibility for the same stock: The Icelandic shrimper whose boat I once sailed on had no issue whatsoever sticking to his quotas, because he knew that if he caught too many shrimp in his fjord this year, there would be fewer next year.

However, I am not convinced of what seems to be the other basic idea of EU-serf’s post, namely that this combination of fishing rights with responsibility must be achieved by returning fisheries policy to the national level. Cod levels in the North Sea, for instance, have been depleted by the joint efforts of local fishermen from mainly the UK, not (yet) by evil Spanish trawlers using the EU rules on “common fishing waters” to empty “our” sea before moving on to the next one. And local cocklers in the north of the Netherlands have succeeded in doing great damage to the ecosystem in their own tidal sea (while, for the time being, maintaining cockle production levels), without the help of any foreigners.

Saving cod

The problem is not so much the government level at which policies are made, but who is involved in making them. In general, if a certain problem transcends national borders, it makes sense to tackle it at a supranational level, which could be the EU. Likewise, if the effects of a problem are only felt at a smaller than national level, it makes sense that a regional or local government determines the rules. But it does make a difference which interests they take into account. The Icelandic shrimper observed his quotas because his fjord was an almost closed system as far as shrimp were concerned and because the fishing community there was tiny: any free-riders predating on their colleagues’ future income would be spotted easily. The Dutch cocklers were heavily involved in (national) rule-making for their fishing waters, but perhaps too heavily: whether it was general short-sightedness, the fact that they were damaging mussels and other life forms rather than the cockles they depend on, or maybe a certain attitude among (elderly) fishermen of “après nous le déluge” – fact is that, until very recently, sustainability considerations did not prevail.

As for cod, it is therefore unlikely that national governments would be less sensitive to sector lobbying than the European Commission (if anything, you would expect impartiality to improve as government gets less dependent on a specific stakeholder). The point with cod and many other fish is that they move around and do not respect the boundaries between territorial waters, so it does make sense to regulate cod fisheries at a transnational level. The point with fishermen though, is that they move around as well, especially if you have common fishing waters established by the EU. In that sense, nationalising fishing policies could sound like the right thing to do, as countries would be able to prohibit foreign fishermen from fishing in their territorial waters.

But, just like the EU’s common fishing waters are accessible to all fishermen from the EU, any nation’s territorial waters are “common fishing waters” for any fisherman from that country. That still raises the question which nation’s territorial waters are the “right” size for keeping fisheries sustainable: Belgium’s? Denmark’s? The UK’s? And if the answer is that territorial waters the size of, say, Belgium’s are ideal, why don’t we chunk up the entire north sea in bits that size, instead of leaving fisheries policy to national levels which are obviously too large, like the UK’s?

All in all, considering the mobility of fish, the mobility of fishing vessels (which can and do move to international waters to deplete stocks there when they find their usual fishing grounds emtpy or prohibited), the need to involve multiple stakeholders and not only the fisheries sector, and the fact that the ideal size does not exist, I still think that fisheries are better regulated at a supra-national level. For the time being, that would be the EU, although even a global level would be necessary if we really want to save cod from extinction. While it is true that the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy is pretty much a disaster, it remains to be seen whether national policies would have been more successful or less susceptible to lobbying. And it has to be recognised that something is, finally, changing at the EU level – thanks to reforms introduced in 2003 by Austrian (!) Fisheries Commissioner Franz Fischler. Member states no longer succeed in blocking every attempt by the European Commission to set stricter rules (would that have anything to do with the EU’s enlargement?). And the idea to tackle the problem by its cause, by abolishing subsidies that stimulate building more and larger vessels, is basically a good one – in any case, much better than “end-of-pipe” measures like current quotas and TACs.

Meta-discussion: Red herrings

On a meta-level, the newspaper article refered to by EU-serf has something odd about it which touches on a discussion started by Nosemonkey about the EU debate itself. EU-serf writes:

Despite this headline, the push for the ban is not coming from Brussels.

The headline in question, reading “EU orders fishing ban in parts of North Sea”, comes from the Daily Telegraph. Money quote:

Fishing will be banned in parts of the North Sea under proposals to be announced by Brussels today after a Royal Commission called for 30 per cent of the sea to be closed to protect fish stocks and the environment.

The article goes on mentioning only the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and quoting its chairman saying that urgent action is required. The suggestion here is that it took a British advisory committee to boldly go where no other scientist in Europe had gone before, to finally talk some sense into the European Commission and to save (well, hopefully) the cod. Rule Brittania!

This struck me as rather odd: what about the Commission’s own scientists, was the British Royal Commission standing alone in its analysis? Of course not. Read the European Commission’s own press release on the matter:

Today, the European Commission tabled a proposal (~940 Kb) on fishing possibilities and attendant measures for 2005 (see table (~101 Kb)). The objective is to rebuild severely depleted stocks and protect those in sound biological state while maintaining, as far as possible, the economic activities of the fleets concerned. The proposal takes account of the latest scientific advice from the independent International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and the Commission’s own Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee on Fisheries (STECF), as well as input from stakeholders.

Science is probably the most globalised profession of all, so one has to assume that the Commission’s STECF has taken the Royal Commission’s very sensible reports into account as well. But as it turns out it is not the Royal Commission which was behind the Commission’s decision, nor does the STECF take a different stance. The Telegraph has probably combined two events which happened to occur within the same limited time frame, but which are not necessarily causally related. The Royal Commission may have been asked by the British government for advice on the position to take when fisheries were debated in Brussels, other scientific committees including STECF will have advised other governments, the Commission and each other, and the result of all that is this decision.

The Telegraph has only seen the British part of this story and the EU’s decision, and therefore wrote it down in the way it did. This is the problem with many national media: they are so used to looking at the world through a national periscope, that they do not see how decisions are taken which involve more than just the own government. EU knowledge is still astonishingly rare in most editorial offices, as they are mainly populated by journalists used to writing about national politics. Articles written by correspondents in Brussels are usually well-informed, but as soon as a national newsroom or a journalist not specialised in EU matters picks up the story, interpretation problems often arise.

The problem is that it is easy for people with an agenda to misuse this lack of knowledge for their own goal. So government Ministers implementing impopular decisions put the entire blame on Brussels while obfuscating the fact that they were themselves part of the decision-making and may even have voted in favour. Or reversely, when it is a popular EU measure, they take the full credits without mentioning the involvement of Brussels, as the Dutch government did when it implemented the EU’s anti-spam Directive. Most journalists simply lack the knowledge to see through such spin and confront politicians with their real responsibilities.

Many a euro-myth was born in this way. And, who knows, maybe the EU’s impopularity as well.

update: Bugger…

The decision was made after opposition from the UK and other EU member states with a North Sea coastline.

Now let’s wait and see how the Telegraph will report about this development…

4 Responses to “Saving cod and red herrings”

  1. Michael D Says:

    Most journalists simply lack the knowledge to see through such spin…

    You are being far too kind to the Telegraph. Their jounalists are very knowledgeable, but the paper’s own position is that the EU is not in Britain’s interest and so nothing, absolutely nothing, positive can ever come out of Brussels. (And, that Brussels is the secret source of most of the countries ills.) In Telegraph logic, proposals that are obviously beneficial can have only come from British scientists.

    EU-serf is wrong with his remarks about free markets. One of the problems with using free market economics to manage ‘commons’ goods is that rising prices makes the product even more attractive to those skimming the creme.

    About 10 years ago, a proposal was made to close about 25% – 30% of the open ocean, that is, not territorial water, to all forms of commercial fishing. These areas included the breeding grounds. This would leave national governments to manage their own waters as they will – the fish would come to them. It also had the advantage of being easy to police by satellite. Presumeably, it didn’t get anywhere, but I don’t know why.

  2. Dylan Sherlock from Victoria, Canada Says:

    The EU needs to take a hard look at the damage done to the Grand Banks fishing industry by overfishing (and don’t get me started on those damn Spanish trawlers… -grin-).

    Rather than restrict where fishermen can fish, what about quotas (per boat)? It’s the assholes on the big trawlers who are destroying the world’s fish stocks, not “small business” fishermen.

  3. eulogist Says:

    @Michael: You are probably right that the Telegraph is among those “with an agenda” (although I also suspect that they know very little about the EU on top of that). Let’s say that I wanted readers to discover that by themselves, rather than providing them with clear-cut answers ;-)

    @Dylan: I fully agree with you on both the Grand Banks and Spanish trawlers. But quotas per boat are not the solution as that is what we already have. They do not work well – involve a lot of bureaucracy while still leaving room for fraud, but most of all because of the by-catches: While fishing for species for which your quota is not yet full, it is very hard to avoid catching other fish for which the quota is full. The quota system stimulates fishermen to continue fishing until all their quotas are exhausted and to throw all by-catches overboard. Those fish are not brought on land and therefore not registered, but they are still dead.
    Cutting back subsidies on large trawlers is a lot easier than imposing quotas. The amount of EU subsidies for the fisheries sector is *over half* the value of the fish produced… So the Commission has a lot of clout if it is willing to impose conditions (and if the Member States do not prevent it from doing so): there is no way the sector could survive without EU subsidies.

  4. Tim Worstall Says:

    Oh dear.
    A whole discussion of fisheries without a mention of the Tragedy of the Commons.
    The solution to such problems is to stop the resource being a commons. To privatise it. For fishing rights to belong to individual people and companies, as fields do.
    Forget the EU, nations, areas. Resources that are not owned will be over exploited.

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