Value slipping through the net

Managing fish stocks for public bene t

Fish are a public good, owned by everybody. They are also valuable to the country, to its economy, society and environment.

Ensuring that society actually benefits and continues to benefit from fishing should duly be at the heart of management.

But, at the moment, neither the European Union (EU) nor its member states place any conditions on fishermen to deliver social and environmental benefits to society, in spite of the public ownership of the resource. Without these, the process of allocating quotas — essentially giving permission to exploit a commonly owned resource — is blind to virtually all of the impacts of fisheries and risks the future health of marine resources and the fishing industry.

Fish stocks are a resource that can be exploited by many different types of fishing. Each type of fishing has different impacts, ranging from how many people have jobs and whether benefits support resilient coastal communities to how severe environmental damage is, how many fish are discarded, and the level of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We use this logic to propose the implementation of access criteria, or conditions on fishing, so that fishing delivers the best of these, while being conducive to rebuilding the perilous state of fish resources.

Currently, the EU allocates fish resources on the basis of relative stability, a means to maintain fishing rights’ within its member states. Each member state then allocates these resources to different sectors of the fleet based on historical records. While this has failed on its own terms, it has no way to prioritise those fishing activities or communities that deliver the most benefit to the public. As a result, the current situation of EU fisheries is characterised by overfishing, discarding, habitat destruction, unemployment, and subsidy-dependence. Indeed, where different types of fishing techniques could be used it is possible that, just as we find in this report, destructive fishing occurs at the expense of more sustainable alternatives.

In this report, we argue that societal, value-based criteria are necessary components of EU fisheries management. We discuss the need to align fishermen’s interests with society’s objectives. We demonstrate that in the UK North Sea cod fishery, the fleet that has greatest access to the resource is not the one that delivers the most value to society; in fact it is more destructive than it is value-adding’. The one that performs best is actually given the smallest quota. We compare two types of fishing — gillnets and trawlers — in terms of value created for society by looking at net revenues, employment, subsidies, discards, and GHG emissions. We find that over the 2006 – 2008 period:

  • For every tonne of cod landed, trawlers delivered negative value ranging from -£116 for the smallest trawlers to almost -£2,000 for the largest.
  • Gillnets, on the other hand, generated a net +£865 of value.
  • Trawlers landed almost 6,000 tonnes of cod, while gillnets landed less than 3 per cent of this — just 163 tonnes.
  • The largest trawlers received direct subsidies of £219/​tonne of cod landed while gillnets received £38.
The implications are clear: the current quota-allocation system in the UK is privileging a sector of the UK fleet that is costing the British public real value. While the results themselves cannot be generalised — which type of fishing is best for society depends on the location, fish stocks, gear used and so on — the principle itself can be, both nationwide and EU-wide. A re-allocation of fishing privileges and subsidies across the fleet from low-value to high-value sectors, where such alternatives exist, would deliver tangible returns to the public. This report shows one widely applicable approach to measuring such value.
The EU has a legal commitment, which it helped write, to restore its fish stocks by 2015. Under current trends, however, it will miss this deadline by more than 30 years. The current reform of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is a unique opportunity for a radical change of direction, one that rewards sustainable, constructive fishing for the benefit of all society. Successful implementation of such access criteria will require several steps, such as good data, transparent and evidence-based decision-making, accountability, enforcement, and penalties. But most of all it requires bold action by EU governments.



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