A think-tank suggests that all fishing in Europe should cease to let stocks recover. Credible plan or silly talk? Stefano Mariani tests the bait.

Stefano Mariani

Would a complete ban on all fishing in Europe for up to nine years be an effective way to replenish fishing grounds?

That’s the conclusion of the report ‘No Catch Investment’ from the UK-based think tank New Economics Foundation (NEF) that looked at 54 northeast Atlantic fish stocks, 49 of which are overfished. They say that halting current overexploitation would allow fish stocks the time to recover. And that the long-term increase in their monetary value as populations bounce back (£14.63Bn per year) will offset the short-terms costs (£10.4Bn) of not fishing (compensating fisherman etc.) which they suggest should be paid for by the private sector – the people who will make the estimated £4Bn profit later – not the public purse.

Personally, the prospect of imposing a blanket ‘freeze’ on fisheries comes across like a grossly simplistic advocacy measure, rather than a knowledge-based strategy.

Fisheries are a global industry

As a scientist, I would always have to go for the best scientific evidence available. And the proposal by NEF is certainly an elegant economic exercise, but not one that is grounded firmly in the biology of fish stocks, or in the trophic balance of the world population, or, for that matter, in the practicalities of policy implementation.

Firstly, given the recent signs of success of policy tweaking, including the reduction of discards and more stringent traceability regulations, pretty well orchestrated by Maria  Damanaki, European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries , it would be unwise to abruptly shake this delicate process of change.

Secondly, there is enough demand for fish, in Europe, to expect that a ‘ban on fishing’ would generate a sudden increase of imports from all over the world, and especially from fisheries and countries that are less well regulated. This would open new, lucrative business opportunities that would guarantee vast short-term revenues for some, but would almost certainly generate catastrophic environmental consequences for high seas habitats, deep sea fisheries, developing countries’ ecosystems, and effectively legalise a lot of the illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices that today we are trying to fight.

Moreover, there are several European countries, such as Norway and Iceland, that have well-managed and sustainable stocks and who base their economy on fish exports: would we tell them to stop fishing? Or would we allow them to carry on and engage in new forms of exportation strategies, in direct  competition with massive imports from unregulated, unknown, new global imports, which exploit fragile developing economies or hinge on high-value, poorly assessed, low-resilience exotic stocks such as Larimichthys croaker or the Chinese bahaba?

In doing so, we would initially put our conscience right, thinking we’re saving cod, but the global net result would be to depauperate resources elsewhere on the globe.

The complexity of protein provision

On another note, would a fishing freeze be only for our main consumed commodities, or also for the huge amount of industrial species that are used as animal feed and fertilizers? People don’t think about this, but hundreds of thousands of tonnes of small pelagic fish (such as capelin, pout, sand-eel and boarfish) are harvested every year to create fish meal and fertilizers that are used to grow everything from carrots to pigs and salmon.

In order to meet the demand for fish proteins, the aquaculture business will boom, and since it is still dependent on capture fisheries (for the feed), there will be a huge increase of small pelagic harvesting: wouldn’t this affect the recovery rate of the species we’d be trying to rebuild?

On the other hand, a scenario where more proteins will have to be sourced from farmlands is a prospect that certainly entails greater environmental degradation through pollution, land erosion and water shortages. Moreover, we’d be less healthy, because fish proteins, to date, remain the healthier option.

Unfortunately, the consumption of animal proteins will inevitably affect the land or the sea. The impact on the land is arguably worse, but it is important to turn to the oceans with plans that are ecologically and socially sustainable. Aquaculture is destined to play a fundamental role, but in the western world it still remains too hinged to the production of few, high-value, high trophic level species, which is not the best strategy to cope with wild production shortages.

There’s always a catch

So I think that the scenario proposed by NEF is not only unrealistic, but unfeasible, because it is overly reliant on investment business, making too many assumptions on complex ecological interactions and life-history responses. House market prices and bond interest rates are far more easily predictable than the biology of marine organisms, and yet that didn’t help the world avoiding the financial meltdown.

Biologists had to learn the hard lesson that their expertise, no matter how excellent, is not enough to resolve the problems of fisheries; all disciplines must play a role, and ideally in integration with each other.

So we must continue along a path of improved communication between scientists, fishers and policy-makers. Let’s work together: biologists, economists, climatologists and social scientists, to improve scientific knowledge, and push harder towards better management solutions that are based on that knowledge, such as the improved identification of stock boundaries, the assessment of life-history adaptive responses to exploitation, the reduction of discards, and a wiser and more responsible use of the funds currently going into damaging forms of fishing subsidies.

About Stefano Mariani

Stefano Mariani completed his MSc and PhD studies in his native city, Rome. He came to the UK as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hull for three years, and then moved to University College Dublin, where he held a Lectureship in Fish Population Biology between 2005 and 2011.

He is currently Reader in Wildlife Biology at the University of Salford and is interested in population genetics in the context of fisheries science and biodiversity conservation.

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