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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Bringing Common Sense to the Common Fisheries Policy

Bringing Common Sense to the Common Fisheries Policy

A campaign to change failed rules which control deep-sea fishing is a study in the power of television, celebrity and natural justice.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, chef, writer, broadcaster and campaigner, is a contemporary ‘celebrity’. He has built a reputation for seasonal, ethically produced food. His River Cottage TV series and recipe books won awards, and he’s Patron of the National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association.

In the 2000s he became angry about the vagaries of the effects of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), whereby tons of perfectly good fish were being thrown overboard, because it was illegal to land them. The loss of quality food and environmental damage done to the seabed was an affront to common sense.

The Regulatory Imperative

Labour politician Nye Bevan described Britain as ‘an island of coal surrounded by a sea of fish’. The rules of ‘common resource’ and ‘equal access’ to all member states would soon change the face of British fishing forever, although under the terms of the Treaty of Rome (and subsequent treaties), there was some doubt as to the legality of this applied to fishing.

Christopher Booker and Richard North explained in their book The Great Deception (2003) that when negotiations began in 1970 to admit Britain to what became the European Union, a revision of the international law of the sea would give the waters of applicant nations (Britain, Ireland, Denmark and Norway) 90% of western Europe’s fish, 80% of that in British waters.

Despite governmental political games, industry objections about danger of French boats clearing fish from British waters and point-blank refusal by Norway to make their fisheries their entry price, Britain’s Prime Minister Heath surrendered fisheries to join. January 1973, the UK became part of the club all main political party leaders had aspired to for years.

The Common Fisheries Policy was a theoretical concept to manage fish stocks under pressure, and ensure all member states could fish. Britain had to accept that, even when a massive Spanish fleet joined too. Skulduggery, betrayal, incompetence, ignorance and ideological fanaticism were among insults flung by those opposed to Britain’s loss of sovereignty.

Quotas and Discards

The CFP (sister to the Common Agricultural Policy that subsidised lakes of wine and mountains of butter that couldn’t be sold) has been through a number of changes. As fish stocks of popular species declined (though much scientific evidence is disputed), measures became more absurd. Days-at-sea limits, paying to decommission fishing boats and allocating tradable species quotas to individual countries always favoured those nations who flouted rules.

Britain normally applied rules with an enthusiastic earnestness that won no friends in seaside communities. One policy that stayed was discarding everything above the given species or a species that wasn’t on quota. Over half of the total North Sea catch had to be dumped, Scottish fishermen wasted £40m of fish annually and UN Agricultural Organisation estimated 1.3m tons of fish and marine animals (13% of all catches) were destroyed.

As Britain’s deep-sea fishing capability declined through EU rules and bankruptcies, it became a symbol of her ambiguous relationship with her European ‘partners’. To take just one example of a vanished fleet. Lowestoft, once England’s premier east coast fishing port: from late 1800s to the early 1960s, there were so many boats, a person could walk deck by deck on trawlers right across the harbour. By early 2000s, there was no deepwater fleet left.

Building a Bandwagon

Fearnley-Whittingstall, having learned all this, filmed a journey round the industrial end of British fishing, and found that, in his words, things ‘are not just bad, they’re mad’. He met fishermen, marine conservationists, politicians, supermarket bosses and the fish-eating public, and was so shocked by what he discovered, that he built a major campaign, a coalition of opinion, to raise awareness and demand change to the laws.

The programmes aired on Channel 4 in January 2011, with a progress report follow-up in August 2011. Hugh’s Fish Fight was a snappy title, and some clever PR ploys, like an interactive display in London’s Selfridges store allowing people to text support and see their names instantly displayed, soon gathered thousands of signed up people.

Prince Charles was happy to be seen lending his support. Faced with the gathering momentum of public anger, Members of Parliament were quick to accept the need for a debate in the Commons, which led to the government funding a six month study into what would happen if discards were ended.

This was followed with an open air display outside the EU building in Brussels in full view of MEPs and officials, again with the instant sign-up facility. 700,000 names mainly from the UK, grew as people from other EU nations came on board. It was good marketing and excellent television, partly because discard rules were blatantly indefensible.

In July 2011 the European Commission, led by Fisheries and Maritime Commissioner Maria Damanaki, published proposals for a totally new CFP, which included banning discards, labelled by Heidi Blake of the Daily Telegraph (28 Feb 2011) ‘a bizarre consequence’ of the quota system.

Keeping It Rolling

With the labyrinthine process of EU Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers, it’ll be another 18 months before proposals become law. That’s a further year and half that Fearnley-Whittingstall has vowed to keep up pressure for reform.

He also urges people to help. Keep badgering politicians, but also rediscover a taste for less popular, nutritious and cheaper fish. Less cod, salmon, haddock and plaice; more dab, flounder, coley and pouting.

His TV profile has already ensured all major British producers will sell tins of only environmentally-sustainable tuna. His Fish Fight has attracted support from celebrities like Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais, Jamie Oliver and Jeremy Paxman, who said: ‘if discards are conservation, then I’m the Mad Hatter’.

Despite worries about enforcing a new system where all catches are counted against quota and fishing stops when limits are reached, Spanish objections and fear of CCTV cameras on boats, this campaign has won the argument and almost the whole battle.

First published on Suite 101, 9 August 2011

Image: Traditional Fish and Chips – Steven Lilley

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