By Lasse Gustavsson
"We have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not." Those words were spoken by a fifteen year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, addressing the participants of the UN conference COP24 in Katowice, Poland. A child points to politicians saying that the emperor has no clothes. But they show no shame or embarrassment and keep leading us astray.
The world is on fire. We live in times of unprecedented environmental crisis, the “Anthropocene” epoch, where humanity’s destructive impact is undeniable. Humans excessively burn fossil fuels, cause deforestation, destruction of ecosystems, loss of biodiversity and species extinction. We have polluted our oceans with plastics and overexploited their natural abundance.
Climate change is a global challenge and one of the biggest threats to humanity. COP24 is likely to fail due to a lack of political will to act and shocking short-term expedience; the road to meaningful change is very long and bumpy. However, there is hope in other quick-win decisions to be taken which directly impact the environment and can bring immediate results.
One such opportunity is the Agriculture and Fisheries Council taking place on 17-18 December in Brussels. European fisheries ministers will decide on annual catch quotas for the Atlantic and North Sea; that is to say, how much fish can be safely taken out of sea without compromising the stock’s recovery cycle. Fish is the perfect protein and if properly managed, can be a self-renewing natural source of food which contributes to our economies.
EU law requires that management be based on science—biological models assess the condition of stocks and advise on next year’s catch limits. However, the reality is different due to petty politics. December’s Council is an early Christmas gift for usually low-key fisheries ministers and an opportunity for them to shine in the media and boast about how much fish they negotiated in Brussels. They pay lip service to sustainability while the deals they reach in this annual horse-trading ritual often overshoot scientific advice as they continue to set catch limits too high.
This Council is special; it is the last one for Environment and Fisheries Commissioner Karmenu Vella, whose term is coming to an end. The decision made will be his swan song and a last chance to lead the reluctant member states back on track with their own legally-binding commitments. Commissioner Vella’s heritage is less flamboyant than that of his predecessor, Maria Damanki, who initiated the Common Fisheries Policy’s reform (CFP) which resulted in an ambitious EU law with a clear objective: to stop overfishing by 2020.
Vella’s job was the technical implementation thereof. Recovery of the iconic bluefin tuna, hailed as a success story, was recently marred by scandal and a Europol criminal investigation in Malta, Spain and Italy, resulting in the seizure of over 80 tons of illegal fish worth over €12 million and the arrest of 76 people. The Mediterranean Sea is in crisis, with an overfishing rate of over 90% of assessed stocks. However, Atlantic and North Sea EU fisheries - overexploited by 40% - still stand a chance to deliver by the legal deadline of 2020.
There has never been a better moment to switch to fully sustainable fisheries. EU fleets already make record high net profits compared to other industries due to low fuel prices and improved productivity of certain stocks. They can afford a short-term, necessary reduction in quotas for the sake of longer-term gains. Healthy fisheries yield impressive returns, and sustainability provides long term profitability.
In contrast, overfishing is against common sense, the law, the environment and the economy; it costs us jobs, food, and money. Oceana’s extensive research and country case studies have showed how sustainable fishing based on science can further contribute to the EU economy: 60% more fish landings (2 million tonnes), EU GDP increase of €4.9 billion, and 92,000 new jobs. Those are enormous social-economic gains which are hard to ignore.
And yet fisheries ministers are deaf to this strong argument. Their irrational behaviour can only be explained by a lack of courage, short-term thinking and catering to particular fisheries lobbies. Recent scandals in the UK and Denmark confirm that “codfathers” have more influence than scientists on ministers, who act like the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse.
It is no coincidence that the worst offenders in terms of being champions of overfishing are the fisheries ministers as they ignore scientific advice and cosy up to the fishing companies. Five wealthy UK families concentrate power over more than a quarter of the country’s fishing quota, discriminating against smaller-scale fishermen. Similarly in Denmark - where the fisheries minister was forced to leave his job due to his coddling of the industry’s “big fish” - the lion’s share of catches still remain in the hands of a few “quota kings”.
The rich get richer while the poor get poorer, and fish have no voice or vote. This fishy business has to stop. Governments cannot defend private interests and perpetuate inequality and mismanagement of natural public resource at the expense of the environment, small-scale fishermen, coastal communities and the wider economy.
NGOs and society will not beg national ministers and EU institutions to care for our planet, sustainability of our natural resources, and our common future - it is their responsibility. Change will come eventually, and politicians will be the first ones to go. Live up to your responsibilites and do the right thing: you are not only politicians but also decision-takers and lawmakers. Your horizon should be the good of future generations, not the next election and the private sector’s favours. You have the power to #StopOverfishing. Bring back our fish now!
Lasse Gustavsson is the Executive Director of Oceana in Europe
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.