The world's ocean are overfished, but an international solution is as far away as ever
9 giugno 1995
di Birna Helgadottir
SOMMARIO. Impressionante analisi della crisi della pesca mondiale e in particolare europea, a seguito della scomparsa delle specie e dell'accresciuto potenziale tecnologico delle diverse flotte pescherecce. Si prevede una "estate calda", di cui la disputa tra Canada ed Europa è stata solo un antipasto. Si dà notizia della prossima conferenza delle Nazioni Unite, ma si avverte che il problema è ormai fuori controllo. Occorrerebbe destinare almeno un quarto del mare del Nord alla protezione delle diverse specie (alla fine dell'articolo, un quadro indica quali sono le specie o già scomparse o in via di estinzione), e raggiungere una regolamentazione adeguata per le acque internazionali. Tra i dati più pericolosi, vi è il fatto che i pescatori scartano enormi quantità di pescato perché inadeguato al mercato, con danni incalcolabili per gli stock. Di questa situazione, la massina responsabile è la tecnologia, oggi in grado di qualsiasi exploit per individuare gli stock, anche nei recessi più sicuri.
Modern practices have decimated Europe's fishing grounds, writes Birna Helgadottir
In all probability we have not yet reached high tide in the fish wars. As the world's bloated fishing fleet is faced, with mounting restrictions on its activities, the fight for diminishing ocean stock looks set to intensify. The Spanish-Canadian halibut row was just a foretaste of what is to come: this summmer could see fearsome conflict on the high seas.
There are a number of conferences and conventions meeting to try to stop this global problem spinning out of control. This week, Europe's fisheries ministers are meeting in Denmark in an attempt to save the overfished North Sea. A Commission-funded report will be recommending the closure of large areas of the sea to fishing and other activities.
Some experts will ask that a quarter of the North Sea be closed off to conserve fish stocks. Ministers will attempt to pacify domestic fishing lobbies while satisfying the requirements of a report the Commission itself requested.
Next month the United Nations will try to resolve the question at the heart of the Spanish-Canadian halibut war: what should be done with international waters.
After several years in session, the UN Convention on Straddling Stocks and Highly Migratory Species is about to deliver its verdict.
According to a draft report, the general right to fish in international waters remains, but coastal nations will be given the right to set quotas and manage the international zones closest to them. Disputes will be taken to a Law of the Sea Tribunal, to be set up in Hamburg next summer.
Such attempted solutions are likely to be overshadowed this summer by a marked proliferation of fishing conflicts. The Barents Sea, north of Scandinavia, is home to the most plentiful cod stocks in the world.
These waters fall mostly under Norwegian jurisdiction, except for a small pocket of international sea, Smuthullet. For the past two summers, Norwegian coastguards have been conducting running battles with Icelandic and French trawlers, which they say have been crossing over into Norwegian territory around the island of Svalbard. Last summer, they fired on and holed an Icelandic boat.
According to international legal experts, the situation in the area is dangerously unstable. The Norwegians are deeply protective over their North Atlantic waters, resenting the presence of foreign boats in Smuthullet. The feeling is that Norway has a moral right to the cod, as it is only thanks to their careful nurturing that decent stocks can be found there.
Icelandic and Portuguese boats are on their way there and Spain, which is keen to relocate 36 factory trawlers exiled from Newfoundland, has plans to send up to 13 of these to the seas around Svalbard and Greenland.
If the conservationists succeed in getting areas of the North Sea closed off, many other EU states could turn to the Barents Sea as a refuge for their homeless fleets.
There are other potential fishing flashpoints. South of Smuthullet are some of the few herring stocks left in the North Atlantic. They are now bein fought over by Russians, Norwegians, Faroese and Icelanders.
Last summer's Tuna Wars involving the Spanish, French and British seem about to start up once again, while the EU's agreement with Morocco over fishing rigts remains to be settled.
Until this is resolved, the Spanish fishing fleet, which constitutes 95 per cent of the EU's presence off Morocco and is the largest Union fleet, will continue its aggressive search for new outlets.
There are rumours that Canada and Norway intend to extend their fishing rights to 250 miles (400km) off their coasts, and the fallout from the halibut war continues. Spain is prosecuting Canada in the International Court of Justice. As Spain takes control of the EU presidency, its leaders may seek revenge on those EU partners who failed to back them. Spain's room for manoeuvre, however, is limited by the fact that she is one of the largest recipients of EU taxpayers' money.
These disputes apart, what is undeniable is that the world's fish stocks are in steep and-perhaps irretrievable decline. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, 70 per cent of the world's fish stocks are fully exploited or seriously depleted, and almost all major fishing regions are in trouble.
Most attempts by the international community at fish stock management have backfired disastrously. In 1982 the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea introduced 200-mile economic exclusion zones around all coastal nations. This seemed sensible, as it brought approximately 75 per cent of the world's commercial fish stocks under national control. In practice, it encouraged fishing nations to rapidly build up fleets in order to exploit their new maritime territories.
Meanwhile, long-distance fleets, which it was assumed would disappear as a result of the law, continued to expand. The result was that the world's fishing fleet doubled in size.
The EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is also widely viewed as an ecological and economic disaster. Set up in 1983, it costs $580 million a year in subsidies. But after 12 years the EU's fleet remains 40 per cent overcapacity and the CFP is deeply unpopular with almost everyone, including the subsidised fisherman themselves, who dislike its maze of regulations.
Scientists are also frustrated when their carefully calculated figures on fish stocks are ignored or discarded by the Council of Ministers, many of its representatives fearful of angry fishermen at home. Environmentalists argue that the CFP has been responsible for overfishing ill tile past and continues to be plagued by short-termism.
The North Sea, focus of this week's Daniish conference, has been a victim of some of the worst excesses of the CFP and modern fishing practices. Fish stocks in the North Sea are on average a tenth of what they were in the 1970s. But depletion of sea stocks has not been matched by a "fish mountain" on land.
According to a European Commission-funded study, three times as much fish on average is discarded as is landed, while Dutch and German beam trawlers kill 16kg of marine life for every 1kg of sole landed.
Discarded fish, fuelled by the quota system which encourages fisherman to dump excess catch for which they would be fined on returning to port, has reached such high levels that the scavenging seabird population is multiplying out of control.
Unsurprisingly, within the EU and elsewhere there is widespread disillusionment with the quotas. Various other methods of controlling fishing are now being suggested: keeping boats in harbour, as the British have been doing and the Spanish currently find themselves orced to do; allocating nations "blocks" of ocean on the condition of good management; and creating maritime nature reserves.
But such measures do not address the contradiction that goes to the heart of modern fishing policy: the unreconciled goals of conservation and short-term efficiency in the industry. The current budget made available to EU fishing fleets stands at $3.25 billion over five years. A portion of this figure is being used to decommission vessels and pension off fishermen, but a larger element is devoted to the precisely opposite task of updating fleets to render them even more efficient.
The Commission itself admits that while the EU fleet has reduced in size over the past few years it has increased its fishing capacity. The received wisdom may be that there are too many fishermen chasing too few fish, but the reality is fewer fishermen catching more and more fish.
Technology has acquired a potentially lethal upper hand over nature. Even shipwrecks are no longer safe havens. Using sonar and positioning gear, boats can now trawl around ruins which were previously safe breeding ground.
By applying the brake on technological modernisation and even forcing it into reverse, it may be possible for the fishing industry to save its coimmunities and fish stocks as part of the same process. The obsession with updating, modernising and streamlining fleets has not only wreaked havoc on the marine ecosystem but lost hundreds of thousands of fishermen their jobs. More labour-intensive fleets would paradoxically catch target species more efficiently.
That is the theory. Selling such an argument politically to national fishing fleets would be a different matter.
***THREE FISH TO WATCH
COD:Once one of the most heavily fished species in the world, Stocks have become increasingly scarce. Watch the battle for it unfold in the Barents Sea.
HERRING:North Atlantic herring were overfished in 1950s and 1960s and disappeared. Now a smaller cousin has made a comeback and will be fought over in the Norwegian Sea.
TUNA:Most heavily fished food species in the world. Not subject to quotas and chased by most EU coastal nations across the Bay of Biscay
***BARENTS SEA: The site of world's biggest cod stocks. Shots were fired during clashes between Norwegians, Icelanders and French over the past two summers, Next week Icelanders will be back, the Portuguese and Spanish also on their way - more could follow.
***IRISH BOX: Spanish and Portuguese fishermen will be allowed in to join British and Irish chasing hake, cod and flounder as of 1 January 1996, as part of their accession agreement.
***NORWEGIAN SEA: Four-way battle over herring already being waged between Russians, Norwegians, Faroese and Icelanders. Others could join.
***NORTH SEA: Ships may be banned from up to a quarter of the North Sea for conservation purposes. This is on the recommendation of a European Commissionfunded report.
***BAY OF BISCAY: Repeat of last year's tuna war is imminent - the warring nations include France, Spain and United Kingdom. European Union patrol boat is already on the scene.
***ATLANTIC OCEAN: The EU and Morocco are locked in battle over fishing rights oft the Moroccan coast. Currently in fifth round of negotiations to solve a dispute which has left a significant part of Spanish fleet idle.
***EU FLEET'S TONNAGE (1993 figures)