Q: when is a fishing boat not a fishing boat?
A: when it’s actually a floating factory.
No, it’s not a good joke. It’s not much of a joke at all.
When most of us hear ‘fishing boat’, we think about something iconic, brave, cheery, bobbing around on the seas - perhaps looking a bit like this. And if you take a cursory look at websites, adverts and people trying to sell you fish, it’s clear that we associate that sort of imagery with fishing. They use those images to reassure you.
But around the world, fishing is increasingly becoming big, industrialised business. A century ago, floating factories went to the Southern Ocean to catch and process whales into oil. These monstrous vessels are survived today by the factory fleet travelling around the world hoovering up sea life and trashing local communities in the process.
I’m not saying big is necessarily bad, or small is necessarily good, by the way. But the factory fishing fleet is one divorced from the local realities that constrain inshore and local fishing fleets. If you only have what's in your local area to keep you in business, you have a reason to look after your local patch. If you can catch, process and freeze thousands of tonnes of fish in a single trip, and travel half way around the world, you’re a little bit less worried about that local patch. Or the people who depend on it.
Many of my colleagues call these big fishing vessels monster boats, and it’s easy to see why. With some of them over 100m long, they are vast vacuum cleaners emptying patches of ocean far from where they are (often nominally) registered or owned.
Europe is a perpetrator in this. European monster boats have scoured the seas off West Africa, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. There are huge tuna purse seiners in the tropics, and krill-crunching trawlers in the Southern Ocean.
When they are done, they go somewhere else. Often assisted by the lobbying of EU fishing partnership deals and a whack of taxpayers’ subsidies too.
Fisheries partnership agreements in the developing world are the modern equivalent of conning native populations out of land and resources for a handful of trinkets. Much of the fish isn’t even destined for human consumption, but is made into fish oil and fish meal.
However, people are waking up to this.
Last year the new president of Senegal revoked the fishing licences of foreign trawlers, and local coastal communities saw an immediate boost in fish stocks.
And Australia rallied round in an unprecedented alliance of local fishers and NGOs to deny access to a massive trawler, forcing the Australian government to send it packing (at least for now…).
The concentration of fishing power into massive vessels that suck up subsidies and sea life is not sustainable, and it's not a sensible policy.
We need to support better ways of fishing. Overseas development in fisheries should be working in real partnership with local communities, and fishing sensibly at sustainable levels. If we, the tax payer, are to be subsidising fisheries, surely we should have a say in what it is we subsidise, and what we prioritise
Perhaps we should just ask people what sort of fishing they want to support?