LAST MONTH, I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr Jane Lubchenco, US Under-Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. As one of the world’s most cited ecologists, the former Harvard professor, marine ecologist and environmental scientist was nominated to the post in 2009 by President Barack Obama.
In a speech to the European Parliament, Dr Lubchenco noted the many direct similarities between US and EU fisheries policy, particularly in terms of the current Common Fisheries Policy reform underway in Europe. As two of the largest harvesters of, and markets for, seafood, I believe there is much the EU can learn from the American experience.
Fisheries management in the US has historically been guided by a legal framework established some 35 years ago in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which was most recently amended and re-authorised in 2006. According to Dr Lubchenco, this legislation, especially its 2006 amendments, have had the effect of producing healthy, profitable and sustainable fishing stocks where there once was rampant overfishing and collapsing yields.
Our American cousins managed such a stark turnaround by focussing on five main areas: Science-based fisheries management; adopting a precautionary approach where scientific data was insufficient or absent; strong monitoring and enforcement; regionalising fisheries management as far as possible; and ensuring that fishermen themselves had a stake in the management of their fishery.
Today, 79% of US stocks with known population levels (258 in total) are fished at a level able to provide maximum sustainable yields. 86% of these are fished at a rate that can be sustained or that allow stocks to rebuild and replenish themselves.
This approach required significant investment on the part of government and stakeholders, but this has paid off in jobs and security up and down the fisheries supply chain; from the boat crews who reel in the catch, to the processing operations, to the restaurants whose patrons demand quality seafood from a sustainable fishery.
With some estimates placing the cost of overfishing to EU nations at £1.5 billion, it is clear that we have much to tackle during the on-going Common Fisheries Policy negotiations. Over a third of a million individuals are employed in fishing and fish processing in the EU and the outcome of these talks can go a long way towards securing new and existing jobs for the industry if Brussels and member states have the political will to make the necessary reforms to the existing system.
Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, Richard Lochhead and the Scottish Government have set themselves against adopting one of the most effective tools used by the Americans, what they call ‘Catch Shares’ or ‘Transferable Fishing Concessions’ (TFCs) as they’re known here in Europe. This market-based strategy allocates portions of the total allowable catch to individuals, communities or producer organisations, thereby providing fishermen with the flexibility to operate effectively within their catch limits. Where Catch Shares have been implemented in the US, it has had the effect of ending the impulse to “race to fish” where fishermen risk life and limb to land the largest catch possible and then inundate the market with their product, putting stocks in danger and depressing prices.
The success of this tool can be seen in Alaska where the Western Alaska Community Development Quota programme utilised Catch Shares to promote regional economic development. These communities, previously languishing after being shut out of the large Bering Sea and Aleutian Island fisheries, now enjoy millions of dollars of income with which to invest in their communities and fisheries operations.
The Scottish Government fought against TFCs, arguing it would put Scotland’s fishing rights at risk. Whilst a mandatory TFC scheme has been scrapped, plans for a voluntary programme are going forward. Such an initiative could bring real, tangible benefits to Scotland’s fishing industry. If a TFC programme was designed smartly, with proper safeguards and with the needs and specific context of individual fisheries in mind, we could see greater profitability, better conditions for our fishermen and lower discards. It remains to be seen if the SNP government will submit to such a sensible plan.
The profitability and sustainability of our fisheries is something we all care deeply about. We have been provided a template for success by the US; time now to see if we can successfully secure the continued health and vitality of Europe’s fishing industry.
Struan Stevenson is a Euro MP for Scotland, Senior Vice President of the Fisheries Committee and President of the Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development Intergroup in the European Parliament.