Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, as the old saying goes. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat the rest of his life. But that presumes there remain plenty of fish in the sea and journalists to help monitor them.
Unfortunately, both are increasingly risky assumptions, as news outlets have been hammered by cutbacks in recent years and oceans have been devastated by a wide range of stresses, including pollution, warming induced by climate change, ocean acidification (another insidious impact of greenhouse gas emissions), tourism in fragile marine environments and, perhaps most dramatically, overfishing.
So perhaps that old saying needs a corollary: Teach people how to manage fisheries—and journalists how to cover them—and we’ll continue to have a sustainable source of protein and delicious seafood for future generations to enjoy.
As it stands, it seems unlikely we’ll be able to count on this resource in the future. About 25 percent of the world’s fisheries are over-exploited, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and another 52 percent are fully exploited. These estimates are based on officially reported figures from the seafood industry, which are notoriously unreliable, but the more targeted studies—it’s now estimated that up to 90 percent of the world’s big fish have been fished out—suggest the situation may be even worse than it appears.
Perhaps some progress has been made toward teaching journalists to better cover these issues, however. Oceans and fisheries are particularly hard issues to report on because most of the action takes place underwater, out at sea, and out of sight. It also suffers from many of the other problems that make environmental issues so difficult to cover: the damage tends to be incremental - rather than sudden and sensational - and widely dispersed.
Another reporting challenge is that figuring out fisheries also turns out to be incredibly complex. It’s full of mind-numbing acronyms — like MSY (Maximum Sustainable Yield), TAC (Total Allowable Catch) and ITQs (Individual Transferable Quotas). It’s about as complicated to explain as climate change, agreed a group of reporters who participated in a Journalism Conference on European Fisheries last month in Dublin, Ireland conducted by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, where I’m executive director.
Europe is at a particularly interesting moment in regards to its Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), now slated for comprehensive reforms. According to an article in The Guardian quoting Dr. Paul Connolly, the director of fisheries science services at Ireland’s Marine Institute, “88 percent of European fish stocks are over-exploited in relation to the maximum sustainable yield.” That’s partly because “the fishing limits that are set are on average 48 percent too high compared to scientific recommendations,” said Markus Knigge, research and policy director of the Pew Environment Group’s European Marine Programme, in Dublin. In a 2009 Green Paper, even the EC concluded that the CFP is a failure, in need of fundamental reform.
The root cause of this failure is that there are simply too many boats chasing too few fish. Oceana, a conservation organization released a report in September estimated that European Union subsidies to fisheries to be €3.3 billion per year, and the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia put global subsidies at between $30 and $34 billion per year. Enter the European Commision’s (EC) latest proposal for reform. Announced in July, Knigge feels the most important aspect of this reform concerns the basic limits that are set on fishing. He would like to see the new policy adopt some of the same language used in US policies, which state that fishing quotas “can’t exceed scientific advice.”
The EC reforms propose to reduce over-capacity by establishing a system of long-term fishing rights that supporters say have helped stabilize fisheries in the United States, New Zealand and Denmark. Known as individual tradable quotas (ITQs), or “catch shares” (in the US) or “concessions” (in the EU), such a system basically acknowledges that the state - in this case the EC - has been unable to reduce the pressure on fisheries, and creates a market to do so. The most profitable and efficient fishing fleets buy out their weaker competitors, yielding fewer boats on the high seas and higher profits for those that remain.