Europe took, what could be, a tentative step forwards today as the publication of the Common Fishery Policy was announced in Brussels. Despite all the BskyB and phone hacking headlines, the new policy still managed to make the news – and I assume this was, at least partly, because of the public interest drummed up by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the Fish Fight campaign against discards.
Hugh’s Fish Fight really has done a good job at getting people interested and aware of some of the things going on in the oceans, but I have been a little concerned that it was missing the mark – a tell tale sign of which was evident all over the news. The stories that broke today were concentrated on the nonsensical bycatch issue, one which the European Parliament is aiming at ridding us of. And, although it is ridiculous and very damaging, it keeps being mentioned with no allusion to the real crux of the matter: that over fishing is taking us alarming close to mass extinction rates. Not once today did I hear the words ‘worrying extinction’, or ‘endangered species’. I did not hear facts like: ‘by 2050 all the major fish stocks could be gone’, (and if you’re wondering, I was following BBC coverage). I don’t mean to say that the discards matter isn’t very important – it is. Discards are more than wasteful, they are a farcical, bad taste joke of disrespect to the sea, and even if fish stocks were plentiful and the by-catch laws were still in place, something would have to be done about them; but the thing that makes them even more of a travesty is the extinction issue, so it’s alarming that this still doesn’t seem to be pubic knowledge, even 3 years after ‘The End of The Line‘ came out.
So, the real bit of good news today is that not only that the commission proposes the end of by-catch, but that the first thing it talks about tackling is ‘Maximum Sustainable Yield’ or ‘MSY’, (the key word here being: ‘Sustainable’ and the word of caution being: ‘Maximum’). The Commission proposes that all stocks must be brought to sustainable levels by 2015. If successful, this sounds like an extremely positive proposal, yet there are two reasons to remain suspicious. The first is that today’s proposal is just that: a proposal. There are still 18 months until this proposal might become legislation, and, as we saw with the recent climate change report, 18 months is plenty of time for a bill to be watered down, turned around, and generally rendered null and void.
My second concern revolves around what will be termed ‘sustainable’. Only last year, CITES* failed to provide adequate protection for blue fin tuna, a species that has suffered an 85% decline of stocks since the start of industrial fishing. I wonder, if the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species can fail at such as task, can we really expect the European Parliament to do much better? Of course we can: we have to. I am in no way expounding a doctrine of defeatism. But, I think more attention should be brought to the main issue: species extinction; and more stress should be put on the fact that this issue is far from over. When fish stocks are starting to replenish themselves, then, and only then, may we start to breathe a sigh of relief. At the moment that event is barely on the horizon. Until then, never mind ‘Meat Free Mondays‘**, we need to aim at drastically reducing the number of fish we consume, and when we do eat fish, we need to be making sure we are not buying from stocks under strain. And the message has to keep on getting out that this is a serious issue: it needs to be common knowledge, so that eating fish in a sustainable manner can become common practice.
*CITES: Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species
**Of course, I don’t mean this literally. ‘Meat Free Mondays’ is a good campaign, and great start point for getting people to cut down their meat intakes.