But ITQs remain controversial. Detractors such as Cecil Beamish, an Irish fisheries official, criticize them for unduly concentrating access to fisheries in the hands of a few wealthy interests, who then face pressure to increase their catch so as to pay off loans taken out to buy the rights. After the tradable system was introduced in the United Kingdom twenty years ago, he points out, many of the fishing rights there were bought out by Spanish commercial interests. Fearful of a similar result, he vows that Ireland, which will hold the EC presidency in early 2013, will oppose the introduction of an ITQ-like system.
Supporters of rights-based fishing, meanwhile, say the tendency toward concentration can be moderated by regulations that, as in Norway for instance, link the right to own certain quotas with specific geographical areas. Knigge argues that if the EC is going to adopt such concessions, as a public resource they should at least be auctioned off rather than given away.
All in all, it’s a fascinating debate over whether to regulate a resource via the market or command-and-control policies. But as John Mooney, a reporter with The Sunday Times, remarked at the Dublin conference, “my readers aren’t interested in ITQs,” and of course they’re hardly alone. So how can journalists select story angles that appeal to a lay audience?
The main way that most of us interact with fish, of course, is on our plates. So reporting on seafood, and how it reaches the dinner table, is one popular approach. Related angles could entail looking at some of the efforts at encouraging sustainable seafood - there are many, including the Slow Food Movement, the Marine Stewardship Council, Seafood Choices, and the pocket guides that let you know which fish are best to eat and buy. There have also been many good stories on the chefs, celebrity and otherwise, who have embraced efforts to make fishing sustainable. In Europe, they’ve formed the Euro-Toques network, which has now spread around the world.
Several of the journalists at the conference in Ireland, including Vanessa Quinto of the Italian agency Lumsanews, also vowed to look into why the price of some types of seafood is so much cheaper than others. Jan Oliver Loefken, an award-winning German science journalist, suggested doing pieces on the science and technology that goes into catching fish and managing fisheries. Pedro Caceres wrote a full-page spread in Spain’s El Mundo newspaper that focused partly on the economic angle of subsidies. The many international disputes about marine resources also serve as fertile ground for stories.
When I was a journalist in Thailand, I did numerous stories on fishing communities (not just their travails but also their successes) focusing in particular on a Muslim fishing village called Ban Chao Mai in the southern province of Trang. In the early 1990s, residents were in desperate straits: there were few fish left in the bay to catch, the mangrove forests were being cut down for charcoal, villagers were moving off to the city to look for jobs, and proud fishermen were reduced to eating canned tuna.
With the assistance of an NGO called Yadfon (“Raindrop”) and by organizing the local communities through the mosques, local fishermen agreed to stop using push nets that dug up the sea grass beds. Because the police were rarely much help, they risked life and limb to go out in their boats in the middle of the night and chase away the big trawlers—pirates, essentially—that would come into the bay to scoop up fish illegally.
The good news is that coastal ecosystems are so fertile many of them can bounce back quickly. At Chao Mai, within a couple of years the sea grass came back, and so did healthier fish stocks. The sea turtles and dugongs also returned, and that in turn brought more journalists and tourists. The villagers certainly still have their problems, but at least they now generally can make a living.
This is another angle for journalists to remember. It’s easy, when covering stories about the oceans or just about any environmental issue, to focus on the doom and gloom. Perhaps because of the old “if it bleeds, it leads” standard, it seems harder to convince editors to take stories on solutions and not just on problems. But they’re out there.
The Alaskan Pollock fishery, for instance, is often held up us a sustainable model. The Maine lobster fishery is also thriving, although that may be in part due to the decline of predators such as cod. In Europe, the Scottish Whitefish Producers Association is held up as an example of a trade association that has embraced enlightened policies, working with environmental groups, and unilaterally supporting strategic closures to protect spawning grounds.