The coast on your plate

Quotas and overfishing—Liza Griffin explores the implications of the British appetite for fish

By: Dr Liza Griffin (University of Westminster)

  • Duration 15 mins
  • Updated Wednesday 13th July 2005
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Environmental Studies
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A fishmarket Copyrighted image Copyright: Liza Griffin

What better than walking down the pier at your favourite British coastal resort tucking into a large cod and chips? It's so fresh that you can taste the sea. Bliss! We know that our supper was probably swimming around in the ocean less than a week ago, but how did it end up on top of our paper cone of chips and what are the consequences of it being there?

A cone of chips Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission

Fishing has been a feature of our coastline in Britain for hundreds of years, and because of its long history it is something that we tend to romanticise. Fishermen are the last of the 'hunters' in the Western world and many of us are aware of how dangerous and precarious the work of a fisherman can be. So when we listen to the shipping forecast on the radio, while safely tucked up in a warm bed, we can imagine the fisherman bravely hauling up his latest catch in treacherous weather conditions; indeed a catch that may contain next week's fish supper.

However, these idealised notions of fishing are really only part of the story. The small harbours that we might visit on trips to the coast no longer support the communities that developed around them at the beginning of the last century; and they certainly don't support enough boats to provide the quantity of seafood that we now require for our own consumption and for foreign markets.

While fishing only represents about 0.05 % of the UK economy some coastal communities, particularly those in the Northeast of Scotland, still rely on this industry to provide local employment. And these ports, that do still support significant fishing and its related industries, may not be the sorts of romantic places that we want to visit at all! They may comprise rather industrial landscapes, dominated by processing factories and modern infrastructure, like roads, railways and transport interchanges.

Cod for auction Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission

Fish today is rarely sold directly to retailers. It is landed from the boats in harbours around the UK's coast. The fish is then auctioned off at markets to merchants who will probably send it to a processing plant, where it may be gutted and packed and perhaps sent to a supermarket. Apart from adding value to the fish, these processes also provide jobs, and as long as the tasks involved are performed locally then the communities that caught the fish will benefit.

But things are changing. Where was the cod that you are eating actually caught? Has it been processed within the local community or was it frozen days ago and sent to Britain from Norway, for instance? Has it travelled for hundreds of miles by lorry or by boat? Fishing, like all industry, has been affected by global economic changes that mean we won't necessarily get our food from the nearest supplier, but rather the supplier that purchased and processed the food - like our piece of 'fresh' fish - for the lowest price in a global market.

Fishermen, then, are not just adventurous hunters. They are like all other business people and they operate in a market economy where they compete with others, hoping to sell their catches to the highest bidder. And in an economic environment where consumers and retailers nowadays have wide choices about where they can purchase their fish, the fisher/business men have to work hard to ensure that they catch the most and the best fish in order to make the profit which is their livelihood.

On top of this, intense competition amongst fishermen means that any fish that is not caught by your vessel could instead be caught by another, so it may be in your interests to catch that fish first! All this means that skippers, who run the fishing boats, will want to invest some of their profits in new and more efficient technology, so that they are able to keep up with the other vessel owners who will be doing the same. Fishing has undergone vast technological changes over the last fifty years. Fishing gear, such as the nets and other equipment, has been improved so that today each vessel can catch much more fish in a single trip.

These factors - improvements in technology and increased global competition - coupled with an increasing global appetite for seafood, mean that our oceans now tend to be overfished. Until well into the 20th century, the resources of the ocean were thought to be infinite. Recently, however, increased fishing effort has corresponded with declining stocks and smaller catches, and it could be that over 70% of oceans are over-fished.

A fishmarket Copyrighted image Copyright: Liza Griffin

As consumers we might be unaware of these issues. Does our fish come from a fishery that is over-exploited? Is the fishery unsustainable? That is, there are not enough fish there to reproduce themselves so that the stock could collapse entirely. Are the fish undersized? Small, juvenile fish may not have had a chance to breed and therefore replenish future stocks. Are the fishing methods damaging to the marine environment? Trawling for sea bass, for example, is associated with deaths of large numbers of dolphins.

In fact there are many more questions that we could ask ourselves about our fish and chips. But the wellbeing of fish stocks is not only affected by the decisions that the consumers make. Fishing is one of the most regulated industries in the UK and it is greatly affected by political decisions.

Fisheries around the UK coast are managed through a complex framework of international, European and national laws and rules. Around Europe's waters, the European Union is responsible for making most of the regulations that affect fishing activity, in the form of the Common Fisheries Policy. This policy controls most aspects of fishing.

For example, vessels are allocated quotas that determine the weight of fish that can be caught in a given period, and some boats are limited in the number of days that they can spend at sea each month. Fishing gear is also regulated: for instance, net sizes are set at minimum levels to avoid catching juvenile fish. With all this regulation we might think that overfishing wouldn't be a problem! However, the Common Fisheries Policy may not be working as effectively as it should be, because the UK's waters suffer as much from over-exploitation and diminishing stocks as do many other parts of the world.

Fishing boats in dock Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission

There are thought to be many reasons for this. For instance quotas for the most vulnerable species around our coast, like cod and haddock, have been cut drastically over the last few years. But this has meant that some fishermen have been unable to make a living on the quota that they are allocated, with the effect that some fishermen may catch and land more fish than their quota allows. This of course is done illegally, and the consequences are that more fish are caught than the scientists recommend.

Another flaw in the Fisheries Policy is that most fishing methods produce a 'bycatch', that is an additional catch of non-targeted species. So, if a fisherman is fishing for his quota of sole and plaice he may nevertheless inadvertently get some cod, for which he does not have a quota. This compounds the pressure on the vulnerable cod stock.

And there may be other issues affecting the long term prospects for fish stocks in Europe. Recently, concern has grown that global warming has affected certain species. It is thought, for example, that because the North Sea's temperature has risen by approximately 1 degree Celsius, cod are moving north into cooler waters outside of the EU. Generally, there are worries that the Common Fisheries Policy does not take sufficient account of the complexity of the ocean ecosystem. Under the present system of quota decisions in Europe, species are considered individually and not in terms of their interactions with one another.

But the ocean is a diverse habitat not just for fish but for billions of creatures, many of which we know very little about. Fish belong to complicated ecologies and food chains; hence, overfishing one species may have consequences for many others. Thus, because adult cod eat herring we might want to be extra vigilant about herring stocks, even though they are currently considered to be at safe and sustainable levels. So if herring were to become over-fished then this could have serious consequences for cod stocks, which are thought to be dangerously close to collapse.

Cod Copyrighted image Copyright: BBC

Yet, whilst we take another bite and eat a few more chips, we might wonder how we know that all this is happening in the ocean. How can we be certain that cod are in danger anyway? Don't some fishermen argue that there are plenty of fish in the sea? Fisheries science is not precise and there are disagreements about how the fish numbers or 'biomass' are calculated.

The numbers of fish in the ocean are determined by fish surveys conducted annually by scientists, but some fishermen might dispute these numbers. These numbers are scrutinised and then recommendations are made about the levels at which quotas should be set. Scientists are concerned that if these levels are set too high then there is a risk that stocks could collapse to the long-term detriment of the environment, and the fishermen and their communities. However, fishermen worry that if catch levels are set too low, then they might needlessly go out of business in a very short time.


Fishing vessel Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission

So the future of fishing around Britain's coast is uncertain. It has changed radically over the last few decades with most communities declining all along the coastline, and with new industries replacing fishing as the dominant feature on the coastal landscape.

We, as consumers and citizens, need to make difficult decisions about the future of British fishing. Do we want to prioritise the marine environment and secure key species like cod for the future, whatever the short term social and economic consequences? Or is it perhaps more important to try and preserve the existing coastal communities that depend upon the fishing industry? Next time we tuck into cod and chips we might think about some of these tough choices and issues. Pass the salt and vinegar...

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