A few months ago I lived on an Australian beach with rainforest for a backyard. Why would I leave this behind to work in rainy Belgium? Because some time ago, having largely emptied their own seas, super-sized European fishing boats began plundering Pacific waters. One of the only ways to stop them is to fix the European Union’s fishing rules.
A once-in-a-decade shake-up of these rules, known as the Common Fisheries Policy, started today in Brussels. For the next couple of years, members of the European Parliament and their corresponding governments, including large fishing nations like Spain, will battle it out until the new rules are finally agreed.
A Greenpeace inflatable takes on the Dutch supertrawler Willem van der Zwan in 2010 off the coast of Mauritania, in West African waters. This industrial fishing ship, built in 2000, is 142 metres long (50% longer than a footbal pitch). It can stay out at sea for months, operating like a floating factory, hoovering fish out of the ocean with a giant pipe, processing 300 tonnes every day and storing up to 6,000 tonnes of frozen fish. Industrial trawlers make up only 20% of the EU fishing sector but take over 80% of the catches. Christian Åslund / Greenpeace
The outcome will decide the fate of much of our planet’s ocean life, because Europe is a massive fishing block and seafood importer. Small scale boats make up most of its fleet, but these are not the major problem. Today’s real sea monsters are the big industrial trawlers. These super-sized factory ships are often over 100 metres long, and catch in a day what entire small nation fleets catch in a year, with none of the local food or employment benefits.
These ships are simply too good at what they do and catch fish faster than they can reproduce – often two to three times faster. In their wake they leave a sad and bloody stream of so-called ‘bycatch’ - unprofitable marine life caught up in the net and thrown overboard dead. You might think there are big profits to be had. In fact, no. Despite the fact the sea gives up its fish for free, in many cases there are now too few fish to make their work viable without substantial public subsidies. Europe’s fleet nets a tiny profit margin - just 6 percent, or 3.5 without direct public subsidies.
The fishing sector needs productive fisheries and healthy oceans, and frankly speaking, it needs saving from itself. A review of the Common Fisheries Policy, tabled today, could do this today and aims to recover fish stocks by 2015. But without concrete limits on the number and type of vessels in Europe, the industry will continue to supply its greedy fleet.
From the high seas to the corridors of power, Greenpeace will be on the front line of efforts to defend our oceans and, by extension, commercial fishing far into the future. Read about our demands for a sensible Common Fisheries Policy here.
To learn more about Greenpeace's work to reform the CFP, go here.
Genevieve Quirk is an Oceans Policy Advisor based in Greenpeace's EU Unit in Brussels and is originally from Australia.